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Greenfield: It's more than just Iraq

Lieberman has long been on the outs with his party's base

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst


U.S. Senate
Joe Lieberman

NEW YORK (CNN) -- If the latest Quinnipiac University Poll is right, three-term Sen. Joseph Lieberman is headed for defeat Tuesday in Connecticut's Democratic primary, and Iraq -- more specifically, his steadfast support for that war -- is the big reason.

But it's not the only reason, which is something those looking for broader lessons from this primary campaign might keep in mind.

Yes, of course rival Ned Lamont would never have mounted so daunting a challenge to Lieberman without the Iraq issue, but take a look back to the key "use of force" resolution passed by Congress in October 2002.

Of the Democratic presidential wannabees who were in the Senate back then, just about all of them -- Sens. John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd -- also voted for the resolution empowering the president to use force against Iraq. Among presidential aspirants, only Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold voted "no."

But Lieberman's backing was different: It lasted far longer and was far more full-throated. As late as last November, with conditions in Iraq producing a massive dose of second thoughts from one-time war-backers, he wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal hailing "visible and practical" progress, and celebrating the spread of satellite TV and cell phone use.

President Bush often quoted Lieberman as evidence of bipartisan support of his policies. Most memorably, at the 2005 State of the Union speech, Bush embraced Lieberman -- a moment known scornfully as "the kiss" to the senator's foes.

But it's important to remember that Lieberman's problems with Democratic constituencies go back further. He has often taken positions at odds with his party's base. For instance, he supported vouchers for public school students so they might attend other schools -- a position public school teachers' unions strongly oppose. This year, both Connecticut teachers' unions have endorsed Lamont.

In the past, Lieberman has questioned the value of affirmative action. Ten years ago, he said: "Affirmative action is dividing us in ways its creators could never have intended."

It's not exactly a coincidence that prominent African-American politician Rep. Maxine Waters of California and the Rev. Al Sharpton are supporting Lamont.

And last year, he supported federal intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman at the center of a long legal battle over whether she could be taken off life support, thus aligning himself on that issue with religious conservatives. Schiavo's husband is campaigning for Lamont, and those Democrats generally unhappy with the power of the "Religious Right" gained another reason to oppose the incumbent.

Then there's lingering unhappiness over Lieberman's decision in 2000 to run both for vice president and his Senate seat. Had Al Gore won the White House, Lieberman's replacement would have been chosen by a Republican governor -- costing Democrats control of the Senate and fueling the idea among some that Lieberman cared more about his career than his party.

And his promise to run as an independent if he loses the primary might complicate Democratic efforts to take two or three House seats in his state from vulnerable GOP incumbents.

So though a Lieberman loss will be interpreted as a signal that the party's base will demand an anti-Iraq presidential candidate, don't forget the special circumstances that Lieberman is facing.

One more question: Although polls suggest Lieberman could win in November running as an independent, wouldn't that course be a lot harder for him to follow if he loses the primary in a landslide?

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