Lieberman & Co.'s Days Are Numbered
Late at night in Hartford's Goodwin Hotel on August 8 -- I'm not even sure what time it was -- Joe Lieberman made his way to the podium for his much-anticipated "concession" speech.
I'd been joking with another reporter that en route to his capitulation Joe would leave fingernail tracks in the carpet leading all the way back to his private room upstairs, but surprisingly he did not have to be dragged onstage at all, and his little elfin nails looked unbloodied and intact as he spoke. I was looking over a crowd of reporters and Joe staffers, off to the right and to the rear of the hall, as he announced his determination to press on:
"If the people of Connecticut are good enough to send me back to Washington..." he began, "I promise them I will keep fighting for the same progressive new ideas and for stronger national security..."
At the words progressive new ideas I couldn't help myself and let out a little laugh, recalling Lieberman's determination to yank funding from public schools that counseled suicidal teens that it was okay to be gay. Was that the kind of progressive idea he was talking about? I really did try to muffle it, but it was too late -- a middle-aged woman with big dangly earrings in a Lieberman t-shirt whipped around and glared at me.
"Yes?" I said.
"Have some respect!" she snapped.
"What?" I shouted.
"You should be ashamed of yourself!" she hissed.
I shrugged. A few minutes later, Lieberman ended his speech with an impassioned promise to fight on: "I believe tonight, more than ever, in America's greatness in its values... Will you join me? "
Roars, cheers from the crowd; the sneering lady in front of me jumped up and down; and then, weirdly, Joe descended from the stage to the strains of the "Tattoo You"-era Rolling Stones anthem Start Me Up. As the defeated Democrat (now officially an insurgent candidate) hugged his family and shook hands with his supporters, the familiar but suddenly unpleasant lyrics shot out through the ballroom:
If you start me up
If you start me up I'll never stop...
Slide it up!
As I listened to this, another Joe supporter -- a somewhat older woman in horn-rimmed glasses -- came over and cornered me.
"You know what?" she said. "You reporters are all alike. You won't admit it, but you're all anti-Semites..."
I scratched my head. Anti-Semites? The song rattled on creepily:
If you rough it up
If you like it you can slide it up, slide it up
I shuddered at this, trying to keep my wits, but Horn-Rimmed Glasses was still whaling away at me. "You people really do have no respect," she went on. "Joe is such a wonderful man..."
"Listen," I exploded, interrupting her. "Do you know what this song is about?"
"It's about a guy who gets an erection that doesn't go away," I said. "Can you explain to me why this song is playing now? What the hell is wrong with you people?"
Horn-Rimmed frowned and listened. At that exact moment Mick Jagger was wrapping the song up:
You, you make a dead man come...
You, you make a dead man come...
The woman recoiled, briefly assumed a quizzical expression, then walked away shaking her head, like the song was my fault.
My experience at the Lieberman event was not unique. A number of other reporters were accosted by a man who showed up at the Goodwin Hotel dressed in a Hillary Clinton t-shirt and proceeded to cruise the periphery of the ballroom accusing the indifferently boozing crowd of journalists of being pro-Hezbollah, anti-Semitic terrorist supporters. In a few cases fistfights were narrowly avoided. Apparently the post-electoral talking points had been issued in advance, because almost from the moment that Lieberman "conceded," a wave of politicians and commentators began similarly hammering home the theme that Lamont's victory was a comfort to terrorists and al-Qaeda, his supporters de facto collaborators.
Lieberman himself was the most shameless: speaking on the day the British terror-plot story broke, which came just 36 hours after his loss, he said that if Lamont's Iraq plan is implemented, "it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes." Dick Cheney held a press teleconference to comment upon the Lamont election -- an incredible step for a Vice President to take on the occasion of an opposition party primary result -- and suggested that "al Qaeda types" were encouraged by the Lamont election. And Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, quickly reacted to the Lamont win by calling the Democrats the "party of defeat and retreat."
It should be noted that both Cheney and Mehlman pointedly referred to the Lamont win as a "purge," echoing the seminal anti-Lamont editorial by the Democratic Leadership Council from two months ago which used the term eight times. They were joined in that effort last week by virtually the entire conservative punditry establishment, with everyone from Cal Thomas ("Purge by Taliban Democrats" was his clever innovation) to American Conservative Union chief Patrick Keene ("The purge that began with the McGovernite seizure of the party...") to Foundation for Defense of Democracies president Clifford May ("The August Purge of Lieberman," a funny historical malapropism; May was trying to echo Soviet Russia, which had an August putsch, not a purge) to Fox's John McIntyre to a whole host of others decrying Lamont's supporters as rich, elitist, neo-commie liberals bent on softening us all up for a terrorist attack, apparently just for the pure, America-hating thrill of it.
There is something perversely exhilarating about watching the American political establishment in action, especially now, when -- with the Middle East in flames, the front pages filled with news of jarring electoral surprises, and the poll numbers of its once-brightest stars falling through the floor -- it has begun behaving like a cornered animal, lashing out incoherently at anything that comes near.
Lieberman himself has been stumbling around like a deer that has just been hit and thrown 200 yards by an F-150, taking the utterly insane position that his candidacy -- his, Joe Lieberman's candidacy -- somehow represents a fight against the "same old" Washington politics. You have Dick Cheney and a whole host of conservative talking heads, all pretense of two-party politics gone now, openly parroting the talking points of the supposed other side, the Democratic Leadership Council. And then you have New York Times columnist David Brooks, acting like a man high on laughing gas, committing to print that positively amazing assertion that "polarized primary voters should not be allowed to define the choices in American politics."
(That one might be my all-time favorite; flailing around in search of a new group on the margins to demonize, this yutz accidentally argues that voters shouldn't be allowed to decide elections. I thought it was funny, but Brooks this time nearly gave progressive pundit Dave Sirota an aneurysm.)
The reason the Lamont election has all of Washington so badly freaked out and dug in is that it's revealed a crack in the long-dependable mechanism of mainstream American politics. For almost four decades now conservatives in both parties have been governing according to a very simple formula. You run against Jane Fonda and George McGovern in election season, then you spend the next four years playing golf, shooting flightless birds, and taking $25,000 speaking gigs in Aspen while you let your fundraisers run things around the office.
But their problem now is that they've fucked up Iraq and everything else so badly that they've practically made "McGovernism" mainstream. A whole generation of hacks has reached office running against George McGovern, and now Joe Lieberman is threatening to ruin things for everybody, just like Jimmy Carter wrecked the Barry Goldwater gravy train for the last generation by falling on his face against Ronald Reagan. If there is such a thing as a principle in Washington, avoiding such a catastrophe as that is it. That's why they won't let Joe die easy -- no matter how much he seems to deserve it.