What a difference a summer makes. Within the span of a few months, Joe Lieberman has fallen from a Democratic establishment shoo-in to "Poor Joe Who'll Somehow Pull It Off" to the man losing to Ned Lamont's double-digit lead. This soap opera has been chock full of plot twists and cliff-hangers (and in soap operas, anything can happen in a few days' time), but ready or not, the primary is now just around the corner. What reckoning will come with it?
Connecticut voters go to the polls on Tuesday to hold Lieberman accountable for his record. Many will give him a pass; after all, he's a nice man and a tradition in Connecticut. Some will punish him for being the Republican rubber-stamper he's increasingly become since the Iraq war. Which group will outnumber which is anyone's guess, but my money's on Lamont to pull it off. (And for the record, to all those friends who've given me bemused "isn't her optimism cute?" looks over the last few months, I dedicate that latest poll to you.)
Tuesday is sitting there like Christmas, and I'm as nervously excited as the kid hoping for something specific under the tree. And I admit, this race isn't captivating everyone else the same way it's grabbed hold of me. A friend recently asked: Why this race? Why Lieberman?, and theories abound: A lame grudge against a man who happily accepts kisses from the president? A left-wing blogger conspiracy? The reaming of a sacrificial "centrist"? Well, no.
Those of you who know, you know. You get why this race is huge. And those of you who don't, here it is: this race is about the future of the Democratic party. It's as simple as that.
I've had a wavering relationship with Democrats, from being a hyper-political teenager sure that one party had all the answers, to an idealistic college student working for the party, to a disillusioned (or enlightened, depending on your take) grad student sure that no party had all the answers, to this me: a fan of populist, outsider politics that are as inherently ground-up as they are distanced from insider Washington. Follow the power and money, and find all the problems. But what's clear to me is that true to my nature, I still want the happy ending; I still want things to be all they could be. I want the self-cleansing and the greater rewards because of it. And maybe that's why I hold this Lieberman race near and dear to my heart - that if the Democrats are ever going to be a party that I'm proud to be a part of (because it's been years since I've made any such claim), this is an election that has to push Lieberman out. If this is my party, I don't see room for him in it - there's just not enough space for both of us. We're facing clear choices with 90-degree turns, and at some point you simply can't try and go both ways anymore.
Earlier this week, E. J. Dionne wrote a fascinating piece in The Washington Post about political tide changes with regard to Lieberman. Drawing parallels between progressive Dems losing patience for Lieberman and conservative Republicans pushing out their progressives in the '80s, Dionne notes:
Ideologically based primary challenges to important incumbents almost always signal major changes in the political winds. That's as true of Lamont's strong campaign against Lieberman as it was of D'Amato's victory, following as it did the primary defeats of two other liberal Republican senators -- Clifford Case of New Jersey in 1978 and Thomas Kuchel of California 10 years earlier -- at the hands of conservatives.
The upstarts who beat Case and Kuchel later lost the fall elections. But their cleansing of progressives from Republican ranks was part of a long conservative march that culminated in Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory and the hold that conservatives now have on the elected branches of the federal government.
The opposition to Lieberman is motivated by an effort to reverse the trend to the right. It's true that Lamont's campaign has been energized by widespread opposition to the Iraq war and the fact that Lieberman has been one of the most loyal Democratic defenders of President Bush's Middle East policies.
But Lieberman's troubles are, even more, about a new aggressiveness in the Democratic Party called forth by disgust with the Bush presidency -- an energy comparable to the vigor that a loathing for liberalism brought to the Republican right in the 1970s and '80s.
Like the earlier generation of conservatives, today's Democratic activists are impatient with accommodating the powers that be. They demand that Democrats stop trying to chase a "center" that has veered ever rightward since 1980. Instead, they want to haul that center back to more progressive terrain. That's why so much of the political energy in Connecticut seems to be with Lamont.
These are sentiments that I have to believe in. I need to see bigger pictures, paradigm shifts, groundswells.... in places, in people, in politics. Movement is energizing, and that's exactly how I see this race: onward and upward.
Sunday's New York Times endorsement of Lamont seemed to be the force that propelled Lamont ahead by double digits this week. It's a shot in the heart to Lieberman, the establishment voice finally signaling that yes, times are changing, Joe. Not just in Connecticut, either: in Montana, in Ohio, and hopefully, in New Mexico.
In a methodical detailing of Lieberman's votes supporting Bush and abusing progressive values - and worse, his outrageous sanctimony when progressives questioned his positions - the Times notes, "There is no use having a senator famous for getting along with Republicans if he never challenges them on issues of profound importance."
If Mr. Lieberman had once stood up and taken the lead in saying that there were some places a president had no right to take his country even during a time of war, neither he nor this page would be where we are today. But by suggesting that there is no principled space for that kind of opposition, he has forfeited his role as a conscience of his party, and has forfeited our support.
Onward and upward: Christmas might just come early this year.