Campaigns/Elections

Conn Artists

When "Nedrenaline" meets "Joementum," nobody wins

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The senate primary race in Connecticut is Washington, D.C.'s big summertime political distraction, as welcome as an afternoon downpour on one the Beltway's stifling dog days of August.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Tuesday's contest is saddled with two such thoroughly unsavory and tiresome candidates that they're about as welcome as, respectively, heat and humidity. Ned Lamont's chief qualification seems to be that he is not Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Sure, Lamont will use the phrase "bring the troops home" to great effect in speeches, drawing a stark contrast with the incumbent's strong support for the Iraq war. But after that applause line the Lamont camp offers only a Kerry-like emptiness, with no real alternative to the Lieberman Iraq policy.

The rest of Lamont's mish-mash of positions seems similarly chosen just to be the opposite of whatever Lieberman supports. This was never more evident than during a TV debate, when the candidate of the big spending, more-government, national health care, extreme left of the Democratic Party got to the right of Vinegar Joe on the issue of government pork. That and Lieberman is a terrible debater.

The anti-Joe thing carries over to Lamont's celebrity endorsers. Take the bilious creator of the state's income tax—Lowell Weicker. The one time liberal Republican senator and independent governor has bounded into the race to support Lamont, supposedly on the merits. Everbody in the Nutmeg State remembers, however, that Lieberman bounced Weicker from the senate in 1988, in a 50 percent-to-49 percent photo finish. All politics is not just local, it is personal.

Other recent additions to a rogues' gallery of Lamont supporters include the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and the New York Times. The Grey Lady, doubtless tired of watching Times reporters jailed or threatened with jail by the Bush administration, last week endorsed Lamont over Lieberman, citing Lieberman's unwillingness to criticize the Bush administration. Jackson and Sharpton, of course, come out whenever there is a good chance the checks will not bounce. This Poisson distribution of unrelated endorsements created a swirl of excitement in the Tri-State area not seen since Alex Rodriguez bobbled a grounder to third.

These developments have produced a steady drumbeat of negative coverage for Lieberman, but the truth is that the Times, Al, Jesse, and Lowell will not win the election for Lamont. Voters still have to decide they've had enough of old Joe.

And they well might consider that Lieberman never really built a strong local base of support. The public was satisfied with him, but he was never well-liked. In Washington he flitted from issue to issue, guided by the certitude that Joe Lieberman had it right and everybody else was wrong.

Contrarian, however, is not a big political demographic. Worse still, his supposed big break—a slot on the big ticket with Al Gore in 2000—revealed Lieberman to be a leaden campaigner and an absolute null set of charisma. Meanwhile, Lieberman's insistence on keeping his senate seat/safety net as he reached for the Veep's office created the first stirrings of ill-will within the state's Democratic power circles.

This planted the seeds for a bizarre left-right alliance to oust Lieberman, who has never failed to preen down the middle of any road, preferably on national television. (See also McCain, John.)

Conservatives and the GOP establishment are rooting for Lamont for two reasons. First, a Lamont win will, they believe, make the Democrats at least sweat a little to retain the seat in a cycle where Republicans will be hard-pressed to hold several of their own incumbent senate seats. Plus a Lamont win would animate the Deaniac, Daily Kos, MoveOn.org wing of the Democratic Party for the 2008 presidential race. Republicans love that.

This seems a little like supporting the Khmer Rouge precisely because they are more extreme, ruthless, and effective than the North Vietnamese. Might not turn out so well.

Anyway, Lamont is not so much running against Lieberman as he is running against George Bush. His campaign gives the left wing of the Democratic Party a way to vote against Bush one more time. With Lieberman too red-state to tolerate, they've turned to someone more blue—blooded that is. Lamont is classic East Coast old money—Harvard and Yale, perhaps $300 million in inherited wealth, only fair personal business performance, $30 million estate. There would be no Lamont campaign without the $3 million he personally spent on getting elected.

He has, however, spent it well. Lamont hired consultants who have deployed the battle-tested approach of Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura. This uses humorous TV ads to poke fun at entrenched political insiders while making an oddball candidate seem one of the guys. So far it has worked.

Polls have Lamont with perhaps a ten-point lead heading into Tuesday's vote, but turnout will be vital. Lamont has absolutely no history as a statewide candidate and this could work against him.

And Lieberman is not standing still. His latest jab is a flier hitting Lamont for belonging to Greenwich's exclusive Round Hill country club. The flier looks like a trial balloon for some sort of last-ditch broadcast push on this convoluted issue.

Lamont resigned from the club when his Naderite campaign manager, Tom Swan, said it might become an issue in the campaign. The Lieberman camp is using the classically vapid "If there was nothing wrong with the club why did he resign?" line of questioning. Better still, the club has long been identified with the Bush clan—it is where Poppy and Bar met.

So to recap, that is the centrist, incumbent, Yale lawyer senator who often sides with the Bush administration knocking the left-wing, multi-millionaire, Jesse Jackson-supported, GOP-cheered, Bush critic challenger for belonging to a predominately white club frequented by the Bushes.

The voters of Connecticut have quite a choice there. And my sympathy.