Political Junkie: Democrats Duke It Out in Connecticut

In this week's Political Junkie, NPR's Ken Rudin, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and his opponent, Ned Lamont, talk about the fight for the Senate in Connecticut.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

It's Wednesday and we're going to get an early start there's a lot of news for our Political Junkie.

This week, a conversation with Senator Joe Lieberman, who's defending his seat against opponent Ned Lamont in Connecticut's Democratic Primary next Tuesday, a run-off election in Congress Woman's Cynthia McKinney's District also coming up. And breaking news Capitol Hill gets a menu change. As always we want to hear your questions and comments about congress and contested elections.

We particularly want to hear from our listeners in Connecticut, today. What questions do you have for Joe Lieberman less than a week before the primary? Our number 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK the E-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And back from a week long hiatus at the beach is Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, podcaster, and author of the Political Junkie column, which you can read on NPR's Web site npr.org. He's with us in Studio Three A. Of course, you tuned in last week, didn't you?

KEN RUDIN reporting:

Am I too tan for radio.

CONAN: I think so. Why don't we start with Tennessee? Senator Bill Frist is vacating his seat probably to run for president. There are three major contenders in the Republican primary who are vying to face off against Democratic Candidate Congressman Harold Ford. I should mention all the Republicans are white. Harold Ford, of course, is black.

RUDIN: Right, and Harold Ford is trying to become the first African-American candidate in history or at least since reconstruction to win a senate seat in the South. Now it's a tough thing but the Republicans are fighting each other pretty nastily - nasty primary that's unusual Thursday primary. Tennessee has its primaries on Thursday and Between Bob Corker, the former Mayor of Chattanooga, Ed Bryant, former congressman, and Van Hillary former Congressman. Both Bryant and Hilleary are accusing Corker the front-runner of being to moderate. And the thing that is fascinating about this race is that if the Democrats are going to win the Senate in November they need six seats. There are clearly five incumbents, Republican incumbents, who are vulnerable: Rick Santorum, Lincoln Chaffey, Mike Dewine in Ohio, and Jim Talent in Missouri. The sixth seat is Tennessee they have to win Tennessee and it's going to be a tough fight and that's why they are probably beating each other up, 'cause they need that seat so badly.

CONAN: And as you suggest. Yeah, I wouldn't, Southern, more border state but anyway it's been conservative.

RUDIN: It's been conservative and of course it's been electing more and more Republicans all the time. Although, they do have a Democratic Governor, and a Democratic Governor who will be reelected this year. But Harold Ford has tried to run, you know, more of a moderate. His father was, Harold Ford, Senior, was a far more, shall we say, radical as far as a Democratic politics. Ford is trying to cozy up to the moderate the Democratic Leadership council wing of the Democratic party, but it is still a tough order for a Democratic - an African American Democrat to win state wide in Tennessee.

CONAN: Well, we've got a minute and a half for Florida, where Katherine Harris, a player in the 2000 presidential election is making her bid to unseat Senator Bill Nelson a Democrat. The Associated Press uncovered a confidential letter sent from Florida's Republican party Chairman to Harris practically begging her not to run. What's going on here?

RUDIN: There's been no question that from day one - even though Katherine Harris is responsible, probably more than anybody else, for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, given her role as Secretary of State during the recount in 2000. Katherine Harris is a divisive figure and many Republicans, Jeb Bush, President Bush, and the Republican party leadership in Florida from the outset has said, please, don't run you are not going to pick-up independent votes you are not going to pick-up wavering Democrats, you are too divisive. But the problem is one is no other Republican got in the act and two Katherine Harris apparently has a tin ear when it comes to that, she never heard any of the pleas or at least she didn't act on them. And she keeps insisting that she will stay in the race, you know, she'll use her…

CONAN: Just quickly three other Republicans are in the Primary against her?

RUDIN: Well, but they're no names. I mean, there are some members of congress, who were implored to run, but they refused to run.

CONAN: All right. Our political junkie, Ken Rudin, is with us, if you'd like to join us 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us at talk@npr.org.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Today, a regular Wednesday visit with the Political Junkie. NPR political editor Ken Rudin is with us. If you'd like to join us, our number, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And I want to ask you - in a few minutes Senator Lieberman will be joining us. Here's an E-mail we got from David in Hillsboro, North Carolina. Whether Lieberman wins or loses is irrelevant to the meaning of Lamont's challenge, independence, and loyal Democrats are disgusted by the lack of a program, especially a progressive program coming from the Democratic leadership.

They've become so timid, so focused on these elections, so afraid to offend those who donate large amounts to the party that they have become nothing more than Republican light. More and more people are uninterested in voting for a pale version of failed policies.

So when you look at the Connecticut primary, be thinking that it may be a harbinger of the end of the Democratic Party. The proof of this contention is that Lieberman himself has such deep loyalty to the party that if he loses, he intends to run as an independent.

RUDIN: Well, this shows the passion that's - I mean we talk - you go back to 1968 and you think of Eugene McCarthy challenging President Johnson on the war. This race in Connecticut between Lieberman and Lamont is not solely about the war. There's a lot of things about Joe Lieberman that have rankled Democrats in the past.

The fact that he was dismissive of Bill Clinton's conduct in 1998 during the impeachment thing. That he should've been tougher on Dick Cheney during the vice presidential debate.

But the point is that there is so much anger on the Democratic Party, not only over the war, not only at the Republican conduct of the war, but the fact that what they see as Democratic ineptitude about standing up to the war.

Now Joe Lieberman is far more than just somebody who supports the war, supports President Bush. He has a history of long, you know, civil rights activities, a pro-labor voting record. He's voted with the Democrats, you know, 90 plus percent. He was the Democratic nominee for vice president, we can't forget, of course, in 2000. But having said that, he has stuck by the war longer than most Democrats, including Hillary Clinton who voted for the war.

He has stuck by this criticism of other Democrats who have criticized President Bush. And the caller is, the E-mail the writer is correct in the sense that even if Joe Lieberman wins on next Tuesday, it shows that there's an anger out there and there's enough to put a scare in the Democratic Party.

CONAN: Well, this has been a bruising campaign, and there have been bruising ads offered by both sides. Let's listen to a couple of them. One for Lamont and one for Lieberman.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Unidentified Announcer #1: (In commercial clip) He's been called President George W. Bush's lapdog, out of step with the people of Connecticut, and a tool of the Bush-Cheney administration. It seems like everybody is mad at Joe Lieberman these days.

(Soundbite of dog growling)

Unidentified Announcer #1: (In commercial clip) But never fear, the people of Connecticut.

(Soundbite of whooshing noise)

(Soundbite of dog yelping)

Unidentified Announcer #1: (In commercial clip) The underdog is here.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

Unidentified Announcer #2: (In commercial clip) Remember Lowell Weicker? Well, bears never forget. He's never gotten over losing his Senate race to Joe Lieberman.

(Soundbite of bear growling).

Unidentified Announcer #2: (In commercial clip) But instead of coming out of hibernation, he sent his bear cub instead - Ned Lamont.

Unidentified Man #1: (In commercial clip) Run.

Unidentified Man #2: (In commercial clip) But I'm supporting Joe Lieberman. I just gave him a campaign contribution.

(Soundbite of spring noises)

Unidentified Man #1: (In commercial clip) Run.

Unidentified Man #2: (In commercial clip) How?

Unidentified Man #1: (In commercial clip) As a Democrat.

CONAN: Well, Senator Lieberman joins us now on the phone, where the only thing hotter than the weather in Connecticut is this primary election. Senator, good to speak with you again.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): Well, the good news is that the weather is hotter today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'd like to remind our callers in Connecticut or around the country to join us with questions for the Senator: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, email is talk@npr.org.

Senator Lieberman, this race is close. The last polls we looked at showed that your challenger, Mr. Lamont, is a little bit ahead. Your polls may show something different. But in any case, it's a lot closer than anybody every expected. Why?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Well, it doesn't surprise me. I can tell you that from the beginning I expected to have a challenge. I didn't know who it would be. Obviously I hoped that the Good Lord would send me a poor challenger instead of one that had the might to put into this as my opponent does.

But the obvious reason for this race is Iraq, and I hold a position that is different, though probably not as different as my opponent portrays, on Iraq than a lot of Democrats do, and I've taken that position clearly not for political reasons, because I could've switched and avoided this primary. I've taken the position because I think it's the right one for our security.

So I'm talking about that. That's exactly - look, my opponent is running against the Iraq War and George Bush, not really against my record, and it doesn't take a lot of smarts to run against the Iraq War and George Bush in a Democratic primary. That puts you in a pretty good position to make it a tough race, which it is right now.

CONAN: Last week, a bunch of Democratic leaders in the Senate signed a letter calling for the beginning of withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of the year. Did you sign that letter?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I did not, but only about eight signed it because it was the top leaders. But I don't want to be evasive about it. I do not support deadlines for troop withdrawals, no matter what the conflict. I was involved in this argument during the 90s when the Republicans tried to force a deadline for withdrawal of our troops from Bosnia on President Clinton, and I said you can't do that. You can express - you can state a goal, you can express a hope, but ultimately you don't want to telegraph to your enemies, and also you don't know what's going to happen between now and then.

So my hope is that we will be withdrawing troops by the end of the year. I believe it's possible, but I don't think Congress should be directing generals in the field to withdraw troops six months from today because we don't know what's going to happen between now and then.

RUDIN: Senator, it's Ken Rudin here. If you look at the left blogosphere out there, most of their anger is not at conservative Republicans like Rick Santorum or Jon Kyl or other Republicans up for reelection this year who might be in trouble. It's directed at you. How do you explain this anger?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: You know, I honestly don't know, because I must tell you, at the risk of agreeing with people who occasionally have said that I'm dull, I'm not an inflammatory person. I believe in civil discourse, and that's exactly the respectful discourse I've had about Iraq and everything else.

And as you said before, and I appreciate it, Neal, I have a very progressive voting record on domestic issues. I have been endorsed by the FLCIO, by Planned Parenthood, NARAL, the League of Conservation voters, and the Human Rights Campaign. And so that's all based on my voting record against some promises by my opponent. So why they've chosen to make me a target, you'd have to ask them.

And listen, Bill Clinton said, actually before he came in to endorse me last week out in Colorado, in a speech, that he just thought it was nuts. That's the word he used. He said the nuttiest thing he could think of for Democrats to be firing at each other instead of getting together and opposing Republicans, and therefore making it more likely that we can elect a Democratic majority to the Senate and to the House. I think Ned Lamont has put a safe Senate seat in Connecticut in jeopardy, and he has put three challenging Democratic candidates for the House in Connecticut in jeopardy, as well.

CONAN: Let's get a listener on the line. This is George, George calling us from New Haven.

GEORGE (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

GEORGE: Can you hear me okay?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

GEORGE: Yes. Hi, Senator Lieberman. I'm calling from New Haven, Connecticut, and I'm a Democrat.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Hi, George.

GEORGE: And my question to you is the following. Following what's going on in Lebanon today, don't you think that Democrats are making a huge mistake by not coming out and calling for a cease-fire and therefore differentiating themselves from yet another Bush Middle-East fiasco? I'll hang up and listen to your response.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, George.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Thanks, George. Thanks for your question. See you around New Haven. Well, you know, it depends on what people feel. Again, I think on matters of foreign policy, we shouldn't play partisan politics. Obviously, if people feel there should be a cease-fire immediately, they should be for it.

I myself believe that the policy that we're pursuing, which is to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 and try to get an international peacekeeping force into southern Lebanon, if the Lebanese army itself can't do it, and push Hezbollah terrorist group back, hopefully out, which is what the Security Council Resolution calls for - is the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, what's happened there is another battlefront in the global war that the radical Islamist terrorists, in this case Hezbollah, have declared against the rest of the world, and the victory there leads to victories everywhere.

What has happened there now, the great tragedy, is the terrible suffering by innocents in Lebanon and Israel, and that's why hopefully there can be an agreement to have that cease-fire policed by an international peacekeeping force.

But short of that, a cease-fire just for the sake of a cease-fire doesn't do anything. It keeps the terrorists there.

CONAN: Let's get Brendan(ph) on the line, Brendan calling from Hartford.

BRENDAN (Caller): Hi. I was just calling - I'm a big supporter of Senator Lieberman.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Thanks, Brendan.

BRENDAN: I'd like to say that I support him largely because I see that we have a senior Senator in Washington who really understands foreign policy, and I think there's some issues that I agree with Ned Lamont, but that I don't think that he has the depth of knowledge and information on how to deal with our foreign policy, which is so complicated these days.

CONAN: Brendan, I'm sure Senator Lieberman will have a stinging response.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Thanks, Brendan. I don't know Brendan, but I thank you - at least not by voice or name. I thank you very much for that. Look, part of what's on the line here and the choice of Connecticut Democrats have next Tuesday is really a choice between somebody who comes and wants to be a Senator based on last having served on his local town board and someone who has 18 years of experience and seniority, for instance has traveled to a lot of countries in the world.

I've been to just about every country in the Middle East except Iran, and I'm very committed to not only protecting American security and values there but trying to help achieve a peace that is more than temporary. So I hope that's something that others besides Brendan will consider as they decide.

Because elections are always about the future, and I know people are angry about some things that have happened in the past on Iraq, but ultimately the future is about more than one issue. And on those issues, I believe my record of results says that I can do a lot better job than my opponent.

CONAN: Brendan, thanks for the call. We appreciate it. We're talking with Senator Joe Lieberman today on the Political Junkie segment on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

KEN RUDIN: Senator, there was some criticism of your campaign earlier that you didn't get it, that you didn't realize the depth and the anger behind the Lamont challenge. A recent poll I saw showed 17 percent of the Democrats remain undecided in this. What do you do in the next week to get that undecided in your column?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yes. I mean, for better or worse, I will tell you that I knew from the beginning that this would be a close race. I mean, to be really as open as I can be about it, we did some early polling, just sort of doing kind of scenarios in a campaign, and what an opponent might say, and back and forth, and it became a very close race, which it obviously is now.

In the next few days, I'm riding a bus, which we call Joe's Tomorrow Tour around Connecticut, and what it aims to do is to focus the public on the choice here, and not just to express their anger at George Bush through me, but to come out and vote for which candidate can do the better job for them on the health care and the jobs and the environment and education and all the other concerns that they have, and to argue that based on my record of delivering for the state, fighting for the state, that I'm the one.

The other thing, obviously, is to encourage a large turnout, because it's been clear to us…

CONAN: And turnout will be an important issue. Senator Lieberman, I wanted to thank you so much for taking time out to join us today. Thank you very much for being with us.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Not at all. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And we have another caller from Connecticut, a bit of a surprise. First on, first off, and now with us is Ned Lamont, Senator Lieberman's challenger, who's calling us from his campaign trail, and Mr. Lamont, very good of you to be with us.

Mr. NED LAMONT (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Connecticut): Neal, delighted to be here.

CONAN: And why do you think this election is close?

Mr. LAMONT: I think it's close because everybody tells me it's close.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAMONT: I've gone around the state, I've read the polls. It looks like it's a dead heat, and as I just heard the Senator mention, and I agree with him, turnout is important, and like he, I want as many people to turn out as possible. I think for once the little old state of Connecticut can make a big decision, and their vote will really count. What type of a country do we want? Do we want to stay the course in Iraq or do we want to change course? And do we want to start investing in this country again? And that's what Connecticut's going to be deciding on August 8.

CONAN: Let me ask you about that question of experience that Senator Lieberman just talked about. Your previous job in politics, Greenwich selectman.

Mr. LAMONT: Well it's a real question, whether you think Washington ought to be reserved for those who have been career politicians. I clearly haven't been that. As you point out, I was very active in local government, but I'm really running as a guy that started up a business from scratch, and I think maybe that experience is pretty good in the halls of the U.S. Senate - somebody who hasn't been on the public payroll but has met a payroll.

And I think that will give me a little bit of credibility as I go down to Washington and try and work on health care and other issues - that maybe we can bring together labor and management and make some progress.

CONAN: Is this election just about sending a message to the Democratic establishment about Iraq?

Mr. LAMONT: It's about changing the direction of this country. It's 63 lobbyists for every single Congressmen. It's a fact that we've got 47 million people uninsured with no health insurance, a situation that's getting worse. You know, I can tell you as a small businessman, it's the high cost of health care that's hurting entrepreneurship in our country right now.

You know, the system is broken. We've got to fix it. You know, it's about investing in clean energy and dealing with our environment in a serious way -not the Dick Cheney energy bill. And yes it is about the war in Iraq and how we work with the rest of the world in this age of terror.

RUDIN: Mr. Lamont, it's Ken Rudin here. I've heard from many voters who say that they like Joe Lieberman, and they've supported him all his career, but they think he's making a mistake by - should he lose Tuesday's primary to run as an Independent in November. Are you coming across that kind of reaction?

Mr. LAMONT: I do come across that reaction, and like many of the people you talked to, I've known the Senator for many years and like him as well. But there's a sense that if you want to run as a Democrat, run as a Democrat and play by the rules. Or if you want to run as an Independent, do that, but don't try and have it both ways, running as a Democrat in the primary and if it doesn't work out, he's going to, you know, bolt the party and run as an Independent.

RUDIN: Have you heard some discussions about lack of funding from Washington should you win the primary, that the DSCC sits out the November race because they figure that either you or Lieberman will win?

Mr. LAMONT: I've got to tell you, I'm not that close with the DSCC, so I can't tell you exactly what their machinations are. But my sense is that Democrats are going to come together and overwhelmingly support the winner of this primary.

RUDIN: And Ned Lamont, thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate your taking time out from the campaign trail, there. By the way, how hot is it?

Mr. LAMONT: It's hot. It's 95 degrees, and politically it's not cooling off.

CONAN: Ned Lamont, good luck to you.

Mr. LAMONT: Take care.

CONAN: Ned Lamont calling us from the campaign trail in Connecticut, and Ken, we've run out of time, but anytime candidates want to call us on political junkie, we'll get them on the air, and it's nice to have both men from Connecticut on the show.

RUDIN: It's a great primary.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, our political junkie. We'll be back next week with the results from the Democratic primary in Connecticut and the rest of the week's news. So join us again next week. You can also read his column online, thepoliticaljunkie@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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