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July 06, 2006

Senator Pavlov

Lieberman won. No other way to put it. He pummeled Lamont. Even his body language had transformed -- I always assumed him a relatively gaunt, small-framed guy. Tonight he looked one shot of jack away from ripping off Lamont's head and eating his brains. Lamont, for his part, appears to have never had media training. Staring at the camera is the first thing you're taught, yet his eyes were darting about like a pup transfixed by a fly. He looked small, nervous, and unsenatorial.

Much of the post-debate analysis has focused on the chasm between the killer streak Lieberman displayed tonight and the slavish geniality in his mutual appreciation society debate with Cheney. Why the difference?

I've long believed that the ideological prism is inadequate for understanding Lieberman. His dysfunctions are less principled than pavlovian. If his instincts are centrist, his fans are Republican. Long a reflexive compromiser, the first to condemn Clinton on the Senate floor, he gave liberal Democrats no reason to enthuse over him but offered nervous Republicans much appreciated cover. And they were appropriately grateful. So though Lieberman is a Democrat and close with his Senate colleagues, he's long understood that the good vibes and friendly tones emanate, for him, from the right. So when he faced off against Cheney, he was speaking to a friend of sorts. Like in the past, a compromising stance towards the right would result in the gush of admiration he never got from the left. And so he did as humans tend to, blindly groping towards the easy praise and away from the tense confrontation.

Fast forward to tonight. Lieberman is angry, sharp, testy, quick. Why? He knows this audience dislikes him, that there's no love to be gained by sucking up to Ned Lamont. So he won't. Instead, he'll destroy his opponents, seek total triumph over those who dislike him. It's easy to attack those who hold you in contempt. And that's the impulse that defines Lieberman's Senate career: the left doesn't like him, so he reacts, naturally, with disdain and indifference. He didn't want any of those sour ol' grapes anyway! But Hannity and Bush and all the others shower him in praise and affection, and given the waves of opposition rippling from his left, he can't alienate his fans and supporters on the right. It's human nature to seek encouragement and refrain from angering your allies, so that's what he does. Unfortunately, his allies are loathsome.

So why does he remain a Democrat? Well, he's always been one. And while he's useful to the Republicans while on the left, as soon as he's on the right, he'd be unconscionably liberal. More importantly, however, he does have friends on the left. His colleagues, not his base. He's plenty well-liked by his fellow Democratic senators, and he's loyal to them if no one else. You don't see him attacking their efforts, only the base's sentiments. And so it's the base, rather than the party establishment, that's attacking him. And so long as "friends" aren't Lamont supporters, Lieberman can don the brass knuckles, go for the groin, and know it won't annoy the few allies he has left. But that's precisely the problem: what's the use of a Democratic senator able to attack a nobody like Lamont but too weak to stand against a dangerous heavyweight like Cheney?

Update: On the other hand, the debate itself may not matter. If this rundown is representative of the press coverage, then Lieberman's best efforts failed to even dent the race's narrative.

July 6, 2006 | Permalink


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Didn't see the debate so I can't argue with your assessment (I'm a Lamont fan so I'm inclined to disbelieve you), but your statement that "you don't see him [Joe Lieberman)] attacking their [Dem Senators] efforts is demonstrably false. What do you call him opening the debate for the republicans against the Democrats' Iraq war amendments (I don't remeber which amendment, but it was one of them)?? Also I definitely remember reading a quote where he disparages his colleagues efforts against Bush's judicial nominees saying "we need to move on". I don't have a source for that, so take it as you will... but there are lots of instances of him attacking his colleagues, both in the Senate and in the press.

Posted by: Alan | Jul 6, 2006 11:07:39 PM

I didn't watch, but looking at the comments over at TPM Cafe (it being a more generally moderate group-- in tone, at least-- than most of the other sites), it looked like roughly two-thirds thought Lamont held his ground at minimum, with only a few agreeing with your analysis.

Having said that, I think your assessment of Lieberman's motives is accurate, and it crystallizes what I dislike about him-- he's a natural toady/bully, depending on how important he perceives others as being. I find that at least mildly despicable, and he's annoying as hell even without that insight. Bleah.

Posted by: latts | Jul 6, 2006 11:12:26 PM

Long a reflexive compromiser...

Here's the way it works: If it's a centrist Republican, he's somehow a "maverick"....a "free thinker". If it's a centrist Democrat, he's a "reflexive compromiser."

See he difference?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jul 6, 2006 11:18:11 PM

So why does he remain a Democrat?
Well, there's this...

Posted by: Polybius | Jul 6, 2006 11:23:45 PM

For all that I know about the place, Connecticut might as well be on another continent.

But I do wonder if there is a sizable group of voters for whom Joe's slick, "real politician" performance is either going to seal their support for Lamont or make them think of him as a serious choice.

Lamont's campaign is framing this race as jus' folks against powerful, entrenched Washington interests. Yeah, Ned's rich, but he's also just a teacher, and so forth.

If Lamont's opposition to the war in Iraq is not the only thing driving his campaign - and I don't see how it could be - then this debate may turn out to be yet another nail in the coffin for Lieberman's political career (as a Democrat).

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 6, 2006 11:25:29 PM

You can't paint Lamont as a fatcat, he looks too nice and nerdy. On the other hand, you can make him appear weak. It's sort of a wash.

As for McCain, I've long argued that his main impulse is compromise, not ideology, so I'm with you there.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 6, 2006 11:29:22 PM

"Lieberman won. No other way to put it. He pummeled Lamont."

It's useful to remember that Lieberman acquired his seat by disemboweling a reasonably popular sitting US Senator.

And the thematic similarities between the current race and the '88 race are reasonably obvious. - it's one of the reasons I thought the "Bear Cub" ad was an effective way for Lieberman to frame the race.

Holy Joe knows how to tear the throat out of Greenwich Yankees. He was able to do it to Weicker, and he did it to Lamont tonight.


"If his instincts are centrist, his fans are Republican."

Of course, for any politician whose instincts are centrist, the fans are likely to come from the opposing camp. I'd bet more partisan Dems are fans of Chuck Hagel than partisan Republicans. Likewise, Weicker as Senator had more fans among CT Dems than CT Republicans.


This primary race is fascinating 7 different ways to Tuesday, but one potential angle I haven't seen anyone talking about has to do with the close to total unanimity of support for Lamont in the lefty blogosphere.

If Lieberman wins on 8/8, the divide between the lefty blogosphere and the Dem electorate will be even more glaring than it was during Dean-mania.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 7, 2006 12:12:16 AM

I haven't seen the debate, so I can't make too many substantive comments regarding it. But based on what I've read, it seems that though most feel Lieberman won on points, he didn't win the right way. Two of the things Lieberman did that people have commented on most were his invocation of a "classic" Ronald Reagan line and conflation of supporting the Iraq war with supporting the war on terror - in short, he won the debate by debating as a Republican. I'm not sure if that's gonna fly with the Democratic primary voters. I guess we'll see, though.

Posted by: Jon O. | Jul 7, 2006 12:21:05 AM

Disagree in the "non-Beltway, smart guys in the class sense."

Lieberman was rude and nasty. which led to the post debate questions being about why Lieberman was rude and nasty.

In the Denate Club, he won.

In politics, he lost.

Posted by: Armando | Jul 7, 2006 12:23:40 AM

"Lieberman was rude and nasty."

Armando and Holy Joe - twins separated at birth.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 7, 2006 12:31:11 AM

True enough Petey.

Lucky for me I am not a politican.

Posted by: Armando | Jul 7, 2006 12:35:31 AM

If Lieberman wins on 8/8, the divide between the lefty blogosphere and the Dem electorate will be even more glaring than it was during Dean-mania.

So were all of the delegates pledged to Lamont part of the "lefty blogosphere?" Are all the members of the teachers unions that have endorsed him bloggers, or perhaps diarists at DailyKos?

I understand that there is a difference between those of us who read blogs regularly (and then those who post comments regularly) and people who don't. But that difference can mainly be found in the fact that some of us read blogs and some of us don't.

I really can't understand your willingness to believe the line that bloggers, their readers and comment-posters make up an easily definable, self-evidently separate segment of American society.

Lamont has obviously gotten quite a bit of momentum from the support he has received from blogs. And he's received quite a bit of real money, which lets him run a campaign without having to dip into his own fortune, rendering Lieberman's attacks against his wealth easily refuted.

But there really isn't an easily defined ideology among bloggers or their readers. The Great Overlord Kos wants to support candidates that otherwise wouldn't be able to run viable campaigns. That's pretty much it, unless there's some lonely Democrat out there running for Congress on the "Kill the Gays" platform. It's all part of building a national party organization, specifically one made up of ordinary people.

If Lamont wins, it will be because he was able to connect with the voters in Connecticut and convince them that he can better represent them in the Senate. If he loses, it will be from the failure of the same.

Either way, it will not be a "defining moment" or a "test" of the "liberal blogosphere." It won't show that the lefty bloggers are supremely in touch with the Democratic electorate, nor will it show the opposite.

There is a sense in which those of us who are becoming more politically active due to the influence of various bloggers are engaging in a momentous struggle for the future of this nation. To a certain degree, I think this is accurate.

But the nature of the USA makes it so that every political fight is momentous, every election cycle important for the future of this nation. Trying to define a movement, especially one in its infancy, by one or two elections is irresponsible.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 7, 2006 12:45:18 AM

I'm just posting this comment to say that if you looked at Stephen's comment, figured it too long and just skipped down, go back and read it. He's absolutely right. As for the blogosphere's record, that a Lamont/Lieberman debate happened is a triumph -- from here on out, Lamont is just another candidate, who has to face the electorate as would any other.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 7, 2006 12:50:05 AM

"I really can't understand your willingness to believe the line that bloggers, their readers and comment-posters make up an easily definable, self-evidently separate segment of American society."

Really? Try the following attributes on for size:

  • White.
  • Upscale.
  • Well educated.
  • More concerned with social and foreign policy issues than economic issues.
  • More likely to be politically activist.

This describes a significant faction of the Democratic party existent since at least 1968. It describes the Gene McCarthy faction against the Humphrey faction. It describes the Hart faction against the Mondale faction. It describes the Tsongas faction against the Clinton faction.

And it also describes the 'netroots'.

If we ran an election pitting Lieberman against Lamont in the lefty blogosphere, Lamont would win upwards of 95% of the vote. The 8/8 election among CT Democrats may or may not be won by Lamont, but the percentages will be drastically different.

I'm just sayin'...

Posted by: Petey | Jul 7, 2006 1:20:22 AM

I agree with Stephen and Petey if that is possible.

I think it is.

Petey speaks specifically to the demographics of bloggers and I believe he is right.

But Stephen is describing the fact that bloggers and commenters are simply more engaged than the electorate, in the Left Sphere, more liberal, but not AS liberal as some would have it and, here is where petey and I may part company, becoming more and more representative of the Democratic Party ideologically and in terms of what they want from the Dem Party.

Will that translate into election victories? That remains to be seen but I think it will.

Posted by: Armando | Jul 7, 2006 1:37:44 AM

'More concerned with social and foreign policy issues than economic issues.' describes Tsongas over Clinton? You're remembering a very different Paul Tsongas and a very different 1992 primary campaign than I am.

Posted by: NBarnes | Jul 7, 2006 1:56:38 AM

I really can't understand your willingness to believe the line that bloggers, their readers and comment-posters make up an easily definable, self-evidently separate segment of American society.

Yeah-- it reminds me of the remarks we hear every election cycle about blacks voting Dem, as if those votes aren't real votes. Non-majority perspectives are still upposed to be valid in this country, and affluent, educated whites have a pretty formidable track record overall.

Posted by: latts | Jul 7, 2006 2:29:52 AM

"As for the blogosphere's record, that a Lamont/Lieberman debate happened is a triumph"

No doubt.

But here's where it's important to understand that the "blogosphere" that helped make the debate a reality is actually a pretty traditional faction in the party.

The interests of that faction are not always aligned with the larger interests of the party.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 7, 2006 2:33:20 AM

I'm going to set aside my spin machine (the motor is overheated, I think), and focus on what Joe does that infuriates ME.

Joe acts like a Rovian-trained Republican. The same generalizations to cover bad behavior and take credit for alleged good behavior. The crude framing arguments against Ned: flip/flop; multiple positions; allegations of lying (there you go again); having more money than God to campaign yet attacking Ned for his wealth from his former business; outright attacks against Dems as being front-persons or bedfellows with terrorists; calls for no debate because we are at war; etc.

I hate those tactics generally, and when a Dem adopts them it convinces me that Joe's heart has changed. He's not a real Dem anymore (if he once was) and I don't want him on our team. I hope the Dem voters of CT see through his bravado and slimey tricks. And I hope that CT is pro-Dem and anti-Bush enough to send Ned to the Senate.

Should this race be a 'message'? Probably shouldn't, but it may be perceived that way if Ned wins (netroots have power) and if Joe wins (netroots don't have power). So be it.

My simplistic, late night, view: Dems are mostly nice, intelligent, socially conscious, humanitarian folks that believe in playing fair and obeying the law. Joe no longer fits my profile. So begone!

(BTW: I don't think Joe so clearly prevailed as Ezra suggests. Joe's Rove was showing tonight, IMO. People are beginning to recognize it, and it isn't pretty coming from a so-called Dem.)

Likely is another week or so we should have a sampling of polls which will tell us a lot about how the wide range of voters viewed the Joe/Ned thing (I won't dignify it by calling it a debate) turned out. My prediction: 65% of Dems liked Ned better than Joe after the only pre-primary discussion they will have.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 7, 2006 3:24:29 AM

"it convinces me that Joe's heart has changed."

I'm pretty sure Lieberman's heart hasn't changed. He was just as much a sanctimonious douchebag a decade ago as he is now.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 7, 2006 4:52:38 AM

"affluent, educated whites have a pretty formidable track record overall."

Well, they massacred the native Americans and invented the transistor. I'd say the track record is mixed.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 7, 2006 5:05:03 AM

Um, you're just wrong. Sorry. You can say Lieberman edged him out, you can call it a draw, whatever. But pummelled? That's an indefensible reading of what happened.

Posted by: Toast | Jul 7, 2006 7:33:48 AM

FWIW, my impressions.

Posted by: Toast | Jul 7, 2006 7:43:47 AM

My simplistic, late night, view: Dems are mostly nice, intelligent, socially conscious, humanitarian folks that believe in playing fair and obeying the law.

What a wonderful world you must live in.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jul 7, 2006 7:58:11 AM

Yet another lonely Petey appeal to Dem Nutmeggers to go with Holy Joe:

Vote for the douchebag. Help build a Big Tent Democratic Party that can govern this nation for a couple of generations, and thus accomplish most of the left's goals.

Help convert the bloc of voters who currently self-identify as "Big Goverment Republicans" into self-identifying themselves as "God 'n' Country Democrats". When this conversion has happened, American politics will produce reliable results for the left once again, just as it did in the 1932 - 1968 time period.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 7, 2006 8:18:49 AM

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