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Tuesday, 18 July 2006 01:55

Michael Winship: Say It Ain't So, Joe: What New York State Can Teach Connecticut -- and Lieberman

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by Michael Winship

There's an old joke I first heard years ago in Washington at a political fundraiser.

A senator is primping in the bathroom mirror and muses aloud to his wife, "I wonder how many great men there are in the world."

She replies, "One less than you think."

Each of the 100 seats in the United States Senate comes with elevator and franking privileges, a pass to the congressional gym and a customized suit woven from hubris and ego. The warp and woof vary from member to member. Some wear the suit more lightly than others.

Until recently, many of us had placed Connecticut's Senator Joe Lieberman in the category of those who didn't assume the mantle too ponderously: a low-key, smart, decent guy; pro-labor and minority rights. More off-the-rack than bespoke, as far as metaphoric senatorial tailoring went.

Now, however, mostly due to Lieberman's staunch support of Bush's Iraq strategy, he faces a primary challenge from Greenwich millionaire Ned Lamont. Suddenly, Lieberman is in danger of falling into a trap of vainglory and inflated self-esteem, dragging a lot of others down with him.

Lamont's neophyte candidacy was initially considered a long shot but has shown remarkable strength. He has pumped $2.5 million of his own fortune into the contest and recruited grass roots support not only from a statewide constituency fed up with President Bush and the war, but such Internet-based groups as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, headed by Howard Dean's brother Jim.

Uncharacteristically, Lieberman has come out swinging. In his one and only, scheduled televised debate with Lamont on July 6, he declared, "Ned, I'm not George Bush. So why don't you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me?" (Which prompted many to wonder, where the hell was this guy in 2000 when we needed him? As Al Gore's running mate, he rolled over like a cocker spaniel in his vice presidential debate with Dick Cheney.)

What's more, should he lose to Lamont, the senator has filed papers to gather petition signatures to run as an independent, creating a new party called "Connecticut for Lieberman."

Here be dragons. Bitter experience tells me so. In the not too distant past, progressive New Yorkers discovered what can happen -- twice. We owe it to our Connecticut neighbors -- especially the Senator himself -- to remind them of the hard lesson learned on both occasions.

In 1970, I worked as a volunteer on the campaign of New York Republican Senator Charles Goodell. Goodell, a congressman from Jamestown, NY, was appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to fill out Bobby Kennedy's Senate term after RFK's assassination.

Goodell proved more progressive than even your average, Rockefeller limousine liberal, especially on the issue of Vietnam. Although he received the GOP nomination for a full term, right-wing Republicans deserted the party in droves. The liberal vote was split between Goodell and the Democratic candidate, Dick Ottinger. As a result, the Conservative Party's Jim Buckley, brother of William F. Buckley, was elected to the Senate.

Fade out, fade in: Ten years later. Four-term Republican Senator Jacob Javits was defeated in the party primary by Hempstead, Long Island, town supervisor Al D'Amato, but decided to continue the race, running on the Liberal Party line. On the Democratic side, Brooklyn Congresswoman Liz Holtzman won a tough Senate primary against -- remember? -- Bess Myerson.

Holtzman begged Javits to withdraw from the general election, knowing he and she would split the progressive, as well as the Jewish, vote. Vanity reigned. Javits refused to budge and we got 18 years of conservative Senator Pothole.

Lieberman may yet pull this one out. He's counting on the perks of incumbency and organized labor's ability to get out the vote. Turnout will be key. If he wins the August 8 primary -- and assuming Lamont doesn't suddenly get dizzied by the rarified air of the blogosphere and decide to mount some zany rump candidacy -- the concerns become moot.

But if Lieberman loses the primary and continues running as an independent, he endangers not only a crucial Democratic seat in the Senate but also three House races in Connecticut in which the Republican incumbents are deemed vulnerable to their Democratic challengers.

Say it ain't so, Joe. If Lamont wins the Democratic nod, accept defeat with grace. Don't make the same mistake liberal New Yorkers and their candidates made in 1970 and repeated in 1980. As Troy Schneider of the nonpartisan New America Foundation wrote in Sunday's New York Times, "If Mr. Lieberman, with all the benefits of major-party incumbency, can't persuade Democratic primary voters to nominate him over Mr. Lamont, he should have the decency to accept that verdict. Any other response reveals a sense of entitlement and arrogance that's disdainful of both his party and the public."

In other words, Senator Lieberman, be a mensch.

Michael Winship


Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.