Friday was a bad day for Senator Joseph Lieberman. The Connecticut Democratic Party's nominating convention endorsed him, but that was a given for an incumbent with a lot of political chips to cash in. The real news was that Ned Lamont, an almost unknown challenger, received a third of the votes. This gave Mr. Lamont the right to run against Mr. Lieberman in a primary, and suggests that Mr. Lamont may even win.
What happened to Mr. Lieberman? Some news reports may lead you to believe that he is in trouble solely because of his support for the Iraq war. But there's much more to it than that. Mr. Lieberman has consistently supported Republican talking points. This has made him a lion of the Sunday talk shows, but has put him out of touch with his constituents — and with reality.
Mr. Lieberman isn't the only nationally known Democrat who still supports the Iraq war. But he isn't just an unrepentant hawk, he has joined the Bush administration by insisting on an upbeat picture of the situation in Iraq that is increasingly delusional.
Moreover, Mr. Lieberman has supported the attempt to label questions about why we invaded Iraq and criticism of the administration's policies since the invasion as unpatriotic. How else is one to interpret his warning, late last year, that "it is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be Commander-in-Chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war we undermine Presidential credibility at our nation's peril"?
And it's not just Iraq. A letter sent by Hillary Clinton to Connecticut Democrats credited Mr. Lieberman with defending Social Security "tooth and nail." Well, I watched last year's Social Security debate pretty closely, and that's not what happened.
In fact, Mr. Lieberman repeatedly supported the administration's scare tactics. "Every year we wait to come up with a solution to the Social Security problem," he declared in March 2005, "costs our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren $600 billion more."
This claim echoed a Bush administration talking point, and President Bush wasted little time citing Mr. Lieberman's statement as vindication. But the talking point was simply false, so Mr. Lieberman was providing cover for an administration lie.
There's more. Mr. Lieberman supported Congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo affair, back when Republican leaders were trying to manufacture a "values" issue out of thin air.
And let's not forget that Mr. Lieberman showed far more outrage over Bill Clinton's personal life than he has ever shown over Mr. Bush's catastrophic failures as commander in chief.
On each of these issues Mr. Lieberman, who is often described as a "centrist," is or was very much at odds not just with the Democratic base but with public opinion as a whole. According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 40 percent of the public believes that we were right to go to war with Iraq.
Mr. Lieberman's tender concern for the president's credibility comes far too late: according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, only 41 percent of Americans consider Mr. Bush honest and trustworthy. By huge margins, the public believed that Congress should have stayed out of the Schiavo case. And so on.
Mr. Lieberman's defenders would have you believe that his increasingly unpopular positions reflect his principles. But his Bushlike inability to face reality on Iraq looks less like a stand on principle than the behavior of a narcissist who can't admit error. And the common theme in Mr. Lieberman's positions seems to be this: In each case he has taken the stand that is most likely to get him on TV.
You see, the talking-head circuit loves centrists. But a centrist, as defined inside the Beltway, doesn't mean someone whose views are actually in the center, as judged by public opinion.
Instead, a Democrat is considered centrist to the extent that he does what Mr. Lieberman does: lends his support to Republican talking points, even if those talking points don't correspond at all to what most of the public wants or believes.
But this "center" cannot hold. And that's the larger lesson of what happened Friday. Mr. Lieberman has been playing to a Washington echo chamber that is increasingly out of touch with the country's real concerns. The nation, which rallied around Mr. Bush after 9/11 simply because he was there, has moved on — and it has left Mr. Lieberman behind.
© 2006 The New York Times