'The Putting of First Things First'; the Revival of the Romance of the Antiwar Left Is a Potential Disaster for the Democrats. It's What Gave the World Richard Nixon in 1968

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Byline: Jonathan Alter

To the consternation of my children, I once spent an afternoon with Monica Lewinsky. It was at a Thanksgiving Day party in 2000, while the results of the presidential campaign were still unclear, and the subject of our conversation was, of all things, Sen. Joe Lieberman. Lewinsky, who no doubt resented the senator's sanctimony in her own case, criticized him for staying on the ballot in his Senate race while running for vice president that year with Al Gore. "Why should he take the risk of losing his Senate seat?" I asked the former intern. Lewinsky batted her eyelashes and turned coy. "I thought politics was supposed to be all about taking risks," she replied, before adding with a laugh, "Oh, I guess I'm not supposed to say that."

The woman who arguably gave the world George W. Bush didn't spend so much time in Bill Clinton's Oval Office because of her political smarts, but she had a point that is relevant to why Lieberman is facing such a strong challenge from Ned Lamont in next week's Connecticut primary. The fury directed at him by many Democrats is rooted not just in his support for Bush's Iraq fiasco but in his annoying habit of hedging his bets, as reflected in his risk-averse insistence that if he loses the primary, he'll run as an independent. His campaign poster when he ran for high-school class president featured him crouched on his parents' roof under the line: vote or i'll jump. The charm of that has worn off.

But there's something psychologically deeper going on in this campaign that is both understandable and depressing--a cannibalistic distraction from what should be the top priority of Democrats, namely booting Republicans. The same Democrats who are justifiably angry with Lieberman for not holding Bush accountable are harming efforts to, well, hold Bush accountable.

Lieberman's problems began long before he was kissed by President Bush at last year's State of the Union. With his Senate seat safe, he didn't have to fight in 2000. He went easier on Dick Cheney in their vice presidential debate than he did a few weeks back against fellow Democrat Lamont. During the Florida recount, he made a point of favoring military absentee ballots likely to be Republican. Lieberman has voted 90 percent of the time with the Democrats--but his first impulse is often to find fault with them. His 2004 run for the White House was better known for its attacks on fellow Democrats than on the incumbent. …