Lieberman’s Precarious Fate Makes D.C. Democrats Sweat

WASHINGTON—For Democrats in this swampy, overheated capital—where the Starbucks are closed by 8 and the best late-night snacks are in the vending machines at Union Station—the humidity isn’t the main source of perspiration this summer. Connecticut is.

“I know there are a lot of Democratic consultants who are very nervous about this,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They are wondering how the right is going to use this.”

Ms. Duffy was referring to establishment trepidation that the blistering exuberance of Ned Lamont’s virtual army of bloggers—one of them landed in hot water last week for doctoring a photo, in jest, to depict Joe Lieberman in blackface—would provide ample fodder for a national G.O.P. message machine that has a demonstrated knack for turning the Democrats into a party no Midwestern mother would approve of.

But an even more pressing concern is whether the left’s triumph in Connecticut will metastasize, spreading to other states and destroying a tenuous truce that, at least until now, has freed some of the party’s ideological strays to compete on Republican turf.

“This will make the blogger community and other liberals much more likely to go after moderates, and maybe to be less pragmatic than before,” said Ms. Duffy. “Will they still assume that just having a [Senator] Ben Nelson who can win in Nebraska is a gift?”

There is a line of thinking that it never had to come to this. That even after Mr. Lieberman’s adamant stay-the-course devotion turned him into a Rumsfeldian villain for his party’s left wing, he could still have avoided the current situation by recognizing the threat early and responding in kind. Instead, as the already-accepted narrative of this incomplete race instructs us, Mr. Lieberman didn’t grasp the insurrection’s force until early June, when a third of the delegates at the Democratic state convention voted to give their nomination not to the 18-year incumbent, but to a Greenwich cable baron named Ned.

To call Mr. Lieberman’s predicament an extraordinary one in Democratic politics is an obscene understatement. After all, the credible primary challenge has long been a distinctly Republican species.

This has something to do with the nature of both parties. The Democrats, as we are constantly reminded, are supposedly a clunky, unwieldy federation of interest groups united only by a desire for power and a humorously futile belief that they can find a way to share it in harmony. The Volvo driver with subscriptions to The Nation and Utne is part of that coalition—but so is the church-going African-American who knows that gay marriage is a sin, and the Detroit autoworker who drives his gas guzzler to the shooting range on the weekend, and so on.

The Republicans, meanwhile, having long since purged themselves of Rockefeller, Lodge and Saltonstall influence, come much closer to ideological unity built around an opposition to Big Government.

What this has long added up to is a fundamental difference between the two parties on the topic of heresy: Democrats tend to permit it and Republicans tend not to.

Just look to Connecticut’s next-door neighbor, Rhode Island, where it’s a foregone conclusion that Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, whose crimes against conservatism include refusing to support Bush’s re-election, will be slain in September’s primary unless he’s rescued by independents, who are allowed to participate.

Or roll the calendar back to the spring of 2004, when Senator Arlen Specter, eyed warily by the right since he cast the lone G.O.P. vote against Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination, used about all the gas left in his 74-year-old body to fight off a primary challenge—by two points.

The term “RINO”—Republican in Name Only—can be as lethal to a Republican in a primary as “liberal” can be to a Democrat in a general election. But when’s the last time you saw a Democratic incumbent cowering in fear of being branded a “DINO”?

That’s essentially what many of the same bloggers whose role in the Lamont campaign has been so celebrated have taken to calling Hillary Clinton, the result of her very calculated pre-’08 push to claim moderate turf—and her vote to authorize the Iraq war.

But Hillary’s Democratic challenger, Jonathan Tasini, will be tickled if he only loses by 70 points in the primary. His bid is a case study in what has been the norm for Democratic primary challenges: a band of true believers utterly overwhelmed by the incumbent’s money, celebrity and institutional support and the party’s patchwork ideological composition.

This doesn’t mean that Democratic challenges born of ideological differences don’t ever succeed. In fact, the Lieberman-Lamont race is in some ways a direct descendent of a 1992 Democratic Senate primary in Illinois, when Alan Dixon, a popular two-term incumbent thought to be invulnerable in a general election, was blindsided by Carol Moseley Braun when she tapped into partisan resentments of the incumbent’s willingness to play footsy with the G.O.P.

But Ms. Braun’s historic triumph—which almost certainly wouldn’t have occured if not for the presence of a third primary candidate who eviscerated Mr. Dixon with a storm of self-funded television—stands as an aberration.

But even before Tuesday’s primary, the likes of Senator Chris Dodd, one of Mr. Lieberman’s strongest allies, and Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who is overseeing the party’s efforts to take back the House, were already warming up their talking points connecting a Lamont win with the party’s broader message in November: President Bush is toxic, their spin went, and anyone too friendly with him will pay a price at the polls.

But for the establishment, there is also the possibility of a terrifying irony: that the Lamont campaign, propelled by some of the most liberal forces in the party, actually represents the Republicanization—and more specifically, the Reagan Republicanization—of Democratic politics. Remember that before he unseated Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan first took on a sitting President, albeit an unelected one, in the 1976 G.O.P. primaries. Gerald Ford withstood that challenge—barely—but Reagan’s gumption only emboldened what was then a growing and frustrated right wing. By the time their hero was inaugurated in 1981, Reaganites had already used primaries to dethrone two icons of moderate Republicanism: New Jersey’s Clifford Case and New York’s Jacob Javits.

When he strode onto the scene, Reagan offered pride and confidence to Republicans who were smarting from Watergate and sick of hearing that theirs was a permanent minority party. Likewise, Mr. Lamont has emerged in an era of unprecedented conservative Republican rule: the House, Senate, White House, Supreme Court, a majority of governorships and state legislative chambers. A victory in Connecticut, however thrilling, may not mollify liberals the way their win over Alan Dixon did 14 years ago, when their party already ran the show in Washington.

“You can get away with a lot more when you’re in the out party,” Ms. Duffy noted.

Then again, to put yet another twist on a tired expression, Ned Lamont is probably no Ronald Reagan.