In 2000, when Al Gore was denied the US presidency in controversial
circumstances, his running mate was Joe Lieberman, Democrat senator
from Connecticut and the first Jewish candidate to represent a major
party. Like other gimmicky vice-presidential selections (a woman in 1984, a
Texas conservative in 1988), it didn’t seem to help much. Lieberman
returned to the Senate, and this year he’s up for re-election.

Lieberman has always been on the conservative wing of the Democratic
party, but in the last year or so he seems to have shifted further to
the right, becoming easily the most outspoken Democrat supporter of the
Iraq war. So it’s not surprising that he’s being challenged, facing off
in the Democrat primary on 8 August against Ned Lamont, a local
cable-TV millionaire.

Although polls still show Lieberman well ahead, the New York Times
has reported that he has contingency plans to run as an independent if
he loses the primary, thereby potentially splitting the vote and
handing a Senate seat to the Republicans. The story has exposed deep
divisions within the Democrats over their approach to Iraq.

The divisive issue is not really what to say about the war, but how
loudly to say it. Lieberman is one of only a small minority who support
the Bush administration’s line; all but six Democrat senators voted for
a motion last month to set a deadline for the withdrawal of American
troops. But, like their ALP counterparts in Australia, Democrat leaders
have mostly been scared of running hard on the war issue for fear of
being seen as unpatriotic. Now their hand could be forced by grassroots
voters fed up with their timidity.

The potential embarrassment of a bunfight in Connecticut comes at a
time when polls all show the war as a negative for the Republicans,
possibly enough to threaten their control of Congress in November. As
the Times
says, the national party leaderships “may have to choose between Mr
Lieberman and an anti-war Democrat in the fall, when they had hoped to
make Iraq squarely the president’s problem.” But the fact they could
have hoped to do that while endorsing a Senator who stood firmly behind
the president just shows how far removed from reality they are.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey