WASHINGTON—Ned Lamont does not froth at the mouth, nor does he wear a nose ring. He looks like what he is: a preppy political neophyte, suitably nervous about challenging a noted United States senator who has spent more than three decades in public office.
The media now have fixed their gaze on the Democratic primary contest between Lamont and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Their debate last week—an uneven match between a polished and aggressive incumbent and a jittery but earnest challenger—was televised nationally. Much breathless analysis is being devoted to the Lamont-Lieberman race, despite indications that the contest remains what it always has been: an uphill struggle by an inexperienced candidate against a powerful and well-financed incumbent.
It is surely possible for Lamont to beat Lieberman in the Aug. 8 primary. The date in sleepy midsummer favors candidates whose supporters are more fervent, and so more likely to vote. The enthusiasm gap so troubles Lieberman that he intends to run as an independent if he loses the primary, a career-preserving option that tends to prove his detractors’ theory: That Lieberman has become a self-absorbed pol for whom staying in office, not serving the people’s will, is paramount.
Win or lose, do not expect the truth of Lamont’s quest to be told by the purveyors of conventional wisdom. It already has become shrouded in media mythology. In this story line, the Lamont candidacy is the product of fevered left-wing bloggers whose Web-based rants against President Bush in general and the Iraq war in particular have the potential to taint the national Democrats as limp, “pre-9/11” peaceniks.
It is indeed true that Lamont’s anger at Lieberman for his support of the Iraq war—more specifically, his objection to the senator’s endorsement of Bush’s open-ended commitment of troops—inspired the wealthy Greenwich businessman to run. But Lamont did not boot up his computer one day and decide to seek office after hearing the call of the wild blogs.
In February, almost a month before he announced his candidacy, he told me in an interview that he’d first tried to get several more-established Connecticut politicians to take Lieberman on. They turned him down. In March, when he formally began his campaign, Lamont assumed he had little chance to win the endorsement of 15% of delegates to the state Democratic convention—the threshold needed to force a primary. The Lamont campaign figured it would have to collect petitions to get on the ballot.
Still, Lamont pursued the party regulars, personally calling and courting most of the state’s 169 Democratic town committee chairs. He appeared at 50 town committee meetings, often drawing overflow crowds. This isn’t the politics of a wing nut. It’s the time-tested practice of old-time ward heelers.
At the May convention—a convention Lieberman was once confident of controlling with loyalists and through his financial contributions to state party coffers—Lamont won 33% of the delegates, more than twice what he needed. The showing should have convinced the national media that Lamont isn’t sustained just by the Internet’s oxygen. It didn’t.
Why not? Partly because the political press, by and large, still hasn’t acknowledged that support for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq isn’t the position of the loony left. It’s the preference of the majority of Americans.
A Gallup poll released on Friday shows two-thirds of Americans want a withdrawal from Iraq, with 31% urging that the draw-down start immediately. In Connecticut, only about a quarter of all voters approve of Bush’s handling of the war, and the vast majority believes invading Iraq was a mistake.
It is Lieberman’s position on the war—not Lamont’s—that is fundamentally at odds with the sentiment of his constituents. The senator seems to have mostly given up on trying to convince them of his correctness. He repeats, instead, the mantra that he’s been a good Senate Democrat for 18 years on most other issues they care about. Lamont, Lieberman charges, is running a one-issue campaign.
“He’s a single-issue candidate who’s applying a litmus test to me,’’ Lieberman said during the debate.
Yes, but campaigns often turn on a single issue. Sometimes it’s crime. Sometimes it’s taxes. Sometimes it’s corruption. Sometimes it’s gay marriage.
Sometimes it is even war and peace.
This, really, is the arrogance of Lieberman’s one-issue argument. If we are going to have a campaign on the issues, isn’t war a darned good one?
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.