Dissecting the Lamont Win in Connecticut

NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin weighs in on where Sen. Joe Lieberman went wrong.

You'd think that people are fed up with politics, and truth be told, most people are. But a funny thing happened this week: Everyone I know wanted to talk about Tuesday's Democratic primary in Connecticut between Sen. Joe Lieberman and his successful challenger, Ned Lamont. Nothing else. Not the discovery of the terrorist plot involving airplanes between the U.K. and the U.S., not the Hezbollah vs. Israel firestorm, not the fact that the Yankees lead the Red Sox by three games. Nope, it was Lieberman and Lamont. Lamont and Lieberman.

And actually, it's a story worth telling. We've seen for quite some time the anger among many voters, certainly from the Democratic left, over the war in Iraq: the decision to go to war in the first place, the way it was waged, what it has done to Iraq and the region, the deaths of 2,600-plus Americans (not to mention the thousands of Iraqis).

At the same time, we've also heard complaints from the Democratic rank and file that when it came to expressing a viable alternative on Iraq, their leaders have been AWOL. Ned Lamont heard those complaints, disagreed with Sen. Lieberman's approach to the war — his long-time support of the decision, his castigation of Democrats for their opposition to President Bush on the issue — and decided to make the challenge.

And there was more. Lieberman's decision to stand up on the Senate floor in 1998 to denounce President Clinton's behavior during l'affaire Monica. His wanting Congress to interfere in the Terri Schiavo situation. Whatever you thought of those positions, they certainly didn't represent the majority opinion in the Democratic Party. So the anger was there even before anyone ever heard of Ned Lamont.

It was interesting to watch Lieberman's fall from grace these past several weeks. Did you see it coming? Did I see it coming? Whatever, I get the sense that Joe never saw it coming. I don't say this with any particular joy or self-satisfaction — I really don't. What I love most about politics, as in life, is seeing the unexpected. I don't have a vested interest in who wins or loses. But when something happens that makes you go "wow," or "hmm," that's what makes it all worthwhile.

Interestingly, but certainly understandably, the Democratic Party establishment lined up behind the three-term senator from the get-go. Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton. Chris Dodd. Chuck Schumer, the party's campaign committee chair. Even Barbara Boxer, the anti-war senator from California, was out in the Nutmeg State stumping for Lieberman — making the point that although they disagreed on Iraq, there was much they agreed upon. But while this was going on, the Democratic left — not so much elected officials (though there were some, notably from the House), but the so-called "grass roots" — made it clear from the outset that they wanted him gone. And as each day passed, Lamont came up in the polls while Lieberman declined.

You knew something was up when Lieberman announced last month that — in the unlikely event he lost the primary — he would run in November as an independent. That's what really upped the ante, and that's what really got the Democratic left up in arms. One, the move in effect told the Democratic faithful that, if necessary, he would no longer be a faithful Democrat if it held back his chances of winning in November. And two, it showed that Lamont was for real. And, as it turned out, he was.

I was on a radio talk show this week sponsored by Wisconsin Public Radio. One caller said what he liked about Ned Lamont's win was that it showed that even the little guys, those without money, can topple the high and mighty war supporters. Truth be told, if Ned Lamont didn't have a personal fortune at his disposal — he reportedly spent more than $2.5 million of his own money — he probably wouldn't have gone as far as he did. But that's another reason why I don't think this is entirely about Iraq. Remember, there were 28 other Democrats who voted for the war. And yet, of those who are up this year, there is nary a serious primary challenge. Where is the outrage (as Bob Dole once famously said) about Hillary Clinton (NY), or Maria Cantwell (WA), or Herb Kohl (WI)? Methinks what brought Joe Lieberman down in Tuesday's primary was more than just the war. A lot of it was about Lieberman. Though the war certainly helped.

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