MONTHS AGO, I was lunching with some savvy Democrats, when one of them asked me: What is the problem with all those Republicans who can't stand maverick GOP Sen. John McCain? As a McCainiac, I warmed to the subject. I disagree with McCain on illegal immigration and other issues, but I like the fact that McCain appeals to Democrats and independents and that he can work with senators on the other side of the aisle. I appreciate McCain's efforts to curb Washington's runaway spending and wish more Republicans followed his lead on fiscal restraint. What is more, I think McCain in the White House could go a long way in healing the country's ugly partisan divide. Then again, I added, Democrats have their own maverick -- Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Unlike Dems who ran from their support of the Iraq resolution, Lieberman has remained stalwart. He has forged relations with the Bush White House and joined McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in fighting pork-barrel spending.
That's when the table got quiet. It is one thing for Democrats to feel superior to rube Republicans who don't like McCain because he is not sufficiently doctrinaire. When, however, a Democrat gets along with Republicans and espouses moderate positions, well then, he is a turncoat, plain and simple. The episode demonstrated how voters value bipartisanship -- from the other side, only.
And that was before rich-guy and cable exec. Ned Lamont waged his primary challenge to Lieberman, who is serving his third term in the Senate. Just six years ago, Democrats hailed Lieberman as Al Gore's running mate -- a position that spoke of the party's confidence that the Connecticut senator was qualified to take over the presidency, should something happen to a President Gore. Now, among the Democratic base, his name his mud.
A new Quinnipiac poll shows Lieberman trailing Lamont, garnering 47 percent of likely voters in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary, compared to Lamont's 51 percent. The poll also showed Lieberman handily winning a general election, if he runs as an independent against Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger, as well as Lamont beating Schlesinger in a two-man race, if by a lesser margin than Lieberman would enjoy. Of course, Connecticut Democrats have every right to reject Lieberman because they disagree with his policies. The fact that he is an incumbent does not mean that he should own his Senate seat for life.
That said, Lieberman is a cut above the routine D.C. politician who habitually runs from difficult votes and unpopular positions. While his constituents have soured on the war in Iraq, Lieberman is sticking by his early support of the war -- even if it costs him re-election. He has shown a dedication to principle that voters like to think they want. Except that the Nedheads -- as Lamont's supporters are called -- object to Lieberman's support of President Bush. As the Weekly Standard's Matt Continetti reported, the most popular campaign button among Nedheads features Dubya's embrace of Lieberman after his 2005 State of the Union address. They are incensed that Lieberman is not a Bush hater. Indeed, the Nedheads are so angry about the Big Hug that they are willing to torpedo a man who campaigned against Bush in 2000.
Hoover Institution fellow Morris Fiorina told me it scares him to watch the extremes dominate each party as they chase moderates out of office. In this case, Connecticut Dems may be "willing to sacrifice" a shot at taking control of the U.S. Senate from the GOP -- Lieberman would be the surer bet to win in November -- "for the sake of their ideological purity."
While many Democrats say they want to see an end to partisan rancor, Fiorina added, Lamont's supporters "are the kind of people who thrive on partisan rancor." Where moderates see bipartisan bonhomie, they see a traitor.
As Fiorina sees it, when busy moderates sit out primaries, they "abandon the field to all those people who have extreme views." You can forget all those "re-elect Gore" bumper stickers so dear to the angry Left. Because Lieberman gets along with the president of the United States, they have a new slogan: Dump Joey.