THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
Meet the man who's gunning for Joe Lieberman.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, May 13, 2006
MERIDEN, Conn.--An article on this page prompted Ned Lamont to run for the U.S. Senate against his fellow Democrat, Joseph Lieberman.
"When Congressman [John] Murtha stood up and said 'stay the course' is not a winning strategy in Iraq, it was Sen. Lieberman who took the lead and took some of the Republican talking points . . . and wrote the piece in The Wall Street Journal [titled] 'Our Troops Must Stay,' " Mr. Lamont told me Tuesday, when I dropped in at his campaign headquarters here, about 20 miles south of Hartford. That article appeared in November, and it helped persuade Mr. Lamont that Mr. Lieberman had to go.
"I didn't think of Ned Lamont as a great candidate," he recalls. He approached prominent Nutmeg State Democrats "and said, 'You ought to do this. I'll support you every step of the way.' . . . They couldn't do it, for a whole variety of reasons. They said, 'If you feel so strongly about it, you do it, Ned.' " And so he did. Next Friday the party holds its nominating convention; if 15% of the delegates there support him, he will win a spot alongside Mr. Lieberman on the Aug. 8 primary ballot. Alternatively, he can collect 15,000 signatures by June 2.
"I think it's really doable," he says. "We're going to win." If he does, it will be the upset of the year, maybe the decade. Senators typically have a re-election rate of about 85%, and only three of them have been defeated in primaries in the past quarter-century. In a Quinnipiac College poll released last week, Mr. Lieberman, who is seeking a fourth term, led Mr. Lamont among registered Democrats, 65% to 19%.
Then again, Connecticut is far from a Bush stronghold, even though the president was born in New Haven. So it's not inconceivable that a campaign whose literature promises "a Senator who will stand up to George Bush" will catch on. Mr. Bush's statewide approval rating in that same Quinnipiac poll was just 25%. What's more, only Democrats can vote in the primary, and their approval rating for Mr. Bush was a minuscule 6%, with 91% disapproving.
Party leaders in Washington frown on challenges to incumbents, and Minority Leader Harry Reid has reportedly asked Mr. Lamont to back off. But the challenger can count on strong support from the "netroots"--left-wing blogs like DailyKos.com and Web sites like MoveOn.org--which bring in money and moral support from around the country. Call him a Kos celeb, though the world of blogs is new to him. "I threw my hat into the ring in the old statehouse a couple of months ago. I had my family there, and my 19-year-old daughter introduces me--her name is Emily--and somebody sends my wife a blog entry that says, 'Ned is OK, but Emily is a hottie.' So I got introduced to blogs."
Although he himself has yet to blog, he reciprocates the online community's enthusiasm. "I like the blogs for two reasons. . . . They were the first guys to ask me about why I am in this race and what I am serious about . . . and they get a lot of people to turn out at Naples Pizza in New Haven. You walk in there not knowing whether there's going to be 10 guys eating pepperoni or 100 guys hanging from the rafter, and thanks to MyLeftNutmeg.com, there's more likely to be 100 people there."
I don't agree with Mr. Lamont about much, but I like him. He's not quite a political neophyte--he has run for office before, winning a seat as a Greenwich town selectman and losing a state Senate race--but he's more an enthusiast than a professional. A successful businessman who made his fortune setting up cable TV systems for college campuses, he has a job to return to if his election bid fails. With nothing to lose, he can afford a refreshing candor.
He is indisputably a partisan, the closest thing possible to a lifelong Democrat, considering that he grew up in a Republican home. "We've had some pretty good debates in my family over the years. But when I turned 18, we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, and there wasn't a lot of question that I was going to register as a Democrat back in 1972."
George McGovern's slogan that year was "America, come home," and Mr. Lamont echoes the theme as he describes his conversations with voters.
"You talk to striking workers at Sikorsky [a Stratford-based helicopter maker]--they've since settled--and . . . they say, how come we can spend $250 million a day in Iraq and we can't afford health care for all of our citizens? I teach a course at Bridgeport High School about how to start your own business. You talk to the guidance counselors there, and [they] say, how come we're cutting back on sports and arts and [have] not enough money for preschool education, and yet we can afford $250 million a day in Iraq? . . . We ought to be investing in our own future here in this country."
Yet he stops short of calling for a total pullout from Iraq. "It's time to take our front-line troops, move them to the periphery, and start bringing our valiant troops home. We're going to be there in the background--we'll be there for political support; we'll be there for logistic support; we'll be there for training; we'll do everything we can to keep the political process going. But having 132,000 troops in the middle of this bloody civil war is fueling the insurgency."
What does he mean by "the periphery"? Iraqi border regions? Neighboring countries? "I don't think it matters that much. You probably start by getting our troops out of the Sunni triangle . . . and move to the Shia desert. From there, we start bringing our major combat operations home, and we lower our presence--we lower our very high-profile visibility there. We'll be in the background; we'll be providing the political support. Maybe we can rally the Arab League; maybe the Egyptians or the Jordanians [or] others can come in to help provide some security going forward."
Mr. Lamont criticizes Democrats--and not just Joe Lieberman--for timidity. "I think we should have been a lot bolder as a party during [the 2004] campaign, and probably the previous campaigns. Come out and say what you believe. . . . The Republicans are really good at talking about the principles that they believe in. And be bold. If you think preschool should be a right for all 4-year-olds . . . go out there and say it, and give people something to believe in."
It's not enough, he says, to be anti-Bush, although he certainly is that. "This administration may be leading the country in the wrong direction . . . but there's also a sense that the Democrats aren't standing tall and being constructive and offering real alternatives, and [voters] want the Democrats to stand up and offer real alternatives."
Yet he faults Mr. Lieberman for doing just that, in ways that, in Mr. Lamont's view, depart from Democratic principles: "If you think vouchers or education savings accounts are a constructive alternative to investing in our public education infrastructure, yes. But within the party, I think there's a sense that that is taking resources away from public education. When it comes to private savings accounts as an alternative to Social Security as a defined benefit, he's always right at the edge, saying this is something we've got to consider, something we've got to think about. When it comes to universal health care for everybody in this country as a basic right, that's a principle of the Democratic Party that Sen. Lieberman has never quite embraced. He's come up with tax incentives for businesses to see if they might be a little more inclined to insure their people. So he generally has not embraced a lot of the Democratic goals and certainly the Democratic methods to achieving where we want to go."
He says his experience as a businessman informs his views on policy. "I think the progressives are a little more creative about coming up with solutions--it doesn't have to be a government solution, but they're striving to solve these problems. I think they're more entrepreneurial--it's a more entrepreneurial party."
I observe that there is a tension between this statement and his complaint that the party isn't bold enough--between the Democratic Party as it is and the Democratic Party as he would like it to be. He concedes--no, he embraces--my point: "I think you phrased that better than I could have." Then he laughs and adds, "Keep going. You got any more quotes? You can quote me on that."
Mr. Lamont, of course, has no illusions that he's going to win me over ideologically. At one point he disparages Mr. Lieberman as "a perfect Wall Street Journal Democrat." (On one subject, though, Mr. Lamont and I find common ground: He blasts the senator for his votes in favor of the pork-laden energy and transportation bills.) In any case, I am not a Connecticut Democrat, so he has no use for my vote.
"This race has got everyone talking," Daily Kos proprietor Markos Moulitsas wrote in a January blog entry. "The buzz is that Lieberman is freaking out." Yet Mr. Moulitsas acknowledged that Mr. Lamont's challenge was "uphill" and "improbable." Along with his incumbent status and wide poll advantage, Mr. Lieberman can take comfort in the failure of the "netroots" thus far to produce many election victories.
In 2004 they generated enough excitement and cash to make Howard Dean the front-runner--but only until the first ballot was cast. (On the other hand, Mr. Dean fared better as a presidential candidate than did Mr. Lieberman, who peaked with his 11% second-place showing in the Delaware primary.) MoveOn.org's political action committee endorsed 27 congressional candidates in 2004; only five won.
More recently, last August antiwar Iraq veteran Paul Hackett narrowly lost a special House election in Ohio; this March liberal ex-Rep. Ciro Rodriguez failed to unseat a centrist Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar, in a Texas primary; and last month Francine Busby was forced into a June 6 runoff for an open California House seat, which she is expected to lose.
But politics is not without surprises. Just ask Mr. Lieberman, who 18 years ago upset a three-term incumbent, liberal Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, by running to his right. Not surprisingly, Mr. Weicker, who subsequently left the GOP, this year is backing Mr. Lamont. All politics is local, even when it's national.
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