Must Joe Go?

Joe Lieberman has a secret: He's a pretty orthodox Democrat. In the spring of 2001, when 12 of the party's senators -- almost one-quarter of the caucus -- voted for the first round of Bush tax cuts, Lieberman voted against them. The liberal group Americans for Democratic Action gave Lieberman's 2003 voting record a “liberal quotient” of 70 (out of 100), putting him only slightly to the right of center in a caucus in which six members earned a 75 while Nebraska's Ben Nelson clocked in at 45. Harry Reid, the Democrats' new leader, had an identical score to Lieberman's.

The American Conservative Union, meanwhile, gave Lieberman a zero for 2004 and 2003, offering him a lifetime 17. This puts him to the left of uncontroversial Democrats like Blanche Lincoln (21), Thomas Carper (18), Tim Johnson (20), and, again, Reid (21). Indeed, in 2002 and 2003, Lieberman scored slightly to the left of John Kerry and John Edwards.

On environmental issues, in particular, Lieberman is a liberal leader. He earned a 100-percent score from the League of Conservation Voters last year, and his main bipartisan legislative initiative in the new Congress is a bill co-sponsored with John McCain to reduce carbon emissions and combat global warming.

And yet, most liberals know nothing of this Lieberman. And the reason they don't is that Lieberman has never emphasized this side of his record, instead parading his centrism to the point of seeming embarrassed by his party affiliation. “His message is basically ‘Republican good, Democrat bad,'” says Keith Crane, a member of the Bramford, Connecticut, town Democratic Committee. So lately, Crane has taken on another role: He is one of the founders of Dump Joe, a group dedicated to finding and supporting a candidate willing to challenge Lieberman in next year's primary election.

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Opposition to Lieberman is driven by the sense that at a time when Democrats are seeking to achieve unity, and liberals are seeking to construct a new infrastructure comparable to the one the conservative movement has built over the past 30 years, Lieberman is uninterested in acting as a team player. Postings on the Dump Joe e-mail list cite his willingness to disparage fellow Democrats on FOX News, often alongside his “good friend” Sean Hannity, as evidence of his unacceptability.

While other Democrats saw Condoleezza Rice's secretary-of-state nomination as a useful opportunity to critique the administration's foreign policy, Lieberman not only voted to confirm her, he went beyond the principle of deference to the president's choices to wax effusive. “It is important,” he said, “that the world not only knows that this secretary of state has the ear of the president, but that she has, if you will allow me to put it this way, America's heart.”

Such posturing turns liberal stomachs, but there's more at stake here than digestive tracts. Lieberman's acts of selective apostasy do real damage. While most Senate Democrats ultimately joined Lieberman in supporting the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, had it not been for Lieberman's decision to join with Dick Gephardt in undermining the bipartisan compromise resolution being pushed by Senators Joe Biden and Dick Lugar, it might never have come to the floor at all. When the Abu Ghraib story broke last spring, it at first appeared that the Senate Republicans might buck tradition and mount a serious inquiry. The Armed Services Committee, which had oversight responsibility for the issue, contains several gop moderates, and independent-minded conservative Lindsey Graham was visibly horrified by the revelations.

Lieberman, however, was minimizing the importance of the affair right out of the gate. In his opening statement at the committee's first hearing on the subject, Lieberman said he could not “help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, never apologized,” an argumentative move of dubious merits straight from the right-wing talk-radio handbook. “And those who murdered and burned and humiliated four Americans in Fallujah awhile ago never received an apology from anybody,” Lieberman continued, thus debuting as the Democratic Party's leading apologist for torture.

He was also one of only six Senate Democrats -- and the only one representing a blue state -- to vote in favor of Alberto Gonzales' nomination as attorney general. On the March 6 episode of Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Lieberman said he was “not jumping to conclusions” about revelations that the CIA plans to continue the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” in which terrorist suspects are sent abroad to, in effect, be tortured by friendly governments whose security services operate with less legal restraint than do America's. “The president has said we do not condone torture,” Lieberman observed. “I don't start disbelieving the president on this.”

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Realistically, however, mounting a primary challenge to an incumbent senator is a daunting task. Dump Joe members insist that Lieberman's support is thin. “I went up to the Board of Aldermen meeting in New Haven,” said one organizer who asked not to be identified out of concern that he could get in trouble with his employer, “and didn't get one negative response.”

Lack of enthusiasm, however, doesn't necessarily translate into open hostility, let alone into someone credible being willing to raise the millions and put in the hours that a primary challenge requires. The dynamic is largely circular: If it looked like Lieberman might lose, more people would speak out against him, which might make it possible for him to be beaten; but if nobody does, nobody will.

Hoping to escape the trap, Lieberman opponents are taking advantage of a new ferment in online organizing and the blossoming of new groups like Howard Dean's Democracy for America and the Drinking Liberally social clubs that have sprung up in many cities to make contact with one another. But even novel groups like these -- along with more traditional progressive groups like Connecticut Citizen Action -- shy away from the idea of throwing themselves into the fray, and the Dump Joe leaders emphasize that they are not formally affiliated with any of these groups.

Nevertheless, without any substantial publicity effort, the “Time To Go Joe” Web site had garnered more than $34,740 in pledges in just two weeks as of March 15, and the group has attracted local media attention, including a favorable Stamford Advocate editorial that welcomed the increased “scrutiny” being thrown on Lieberman (without specifically endorsing the call for a primary). Crane says he's working on putting a better-looking site together that will be more widely publicized and could generate enough money to tempt a credible candidate into the race, thus changing the dynamic.

The key to whether Lieberman winds up feeling some serious heat will likely be Social Security, an issue on which the Democratic leadership in Washington has laid down the line and on which there's intense interest-group opposition to deviations. In late February, in response to hints that Lieberman was preparing to co-author a compromise privatization plan with Graham, Joshua Micah Marshall wondered on his Web log “how quickly a few hundred thousand dollars of seed money could be raised to fund a decent primary opponent to run against Lieberman next year.” Others in the blogosphere quickly chimed in that they'd be glad to help if Lieberman really does take the plunge.

But the more pressure Lieberman feels from the left, the less likely he is to stray off the reservation. By March 3, he had joined the vast majority of Senate Democrats in signing a letter that ruled out privatization as an option. As long as Lieberman sticks to that line, it's hard to see his opponents gaining much support.

Lieberman still sends signals of edging back toward compromise. Appearing on the March 6 Late Edition, Lieberman reiterated his opposition to privatization, but he accepted the view that Social Security is “a crisis that should be addressed now,” said he was working with Republicans trying to devise a compromise, and added, “We can't take any of these ideas off the table.” Unless that changes, the chance of a forced Lieberman retirement will stay on the table as well.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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