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Debate Train to Crazy Town

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Matt Stoller is in Connecticut, watching the Lamont-Lieberman-Schlesinger race with his mouth hanging open.

You know you're in an incredible political environment when you're at an event where egomaniac Ralph Nader is wandering around, and not only is no one paying attention to him, but Ralph Nader himself doesn't even expect anyone to pay attention to him.  That was the scene earlier today in Hartford, CT, where five candidates went at each other, or mostly at Joe Lieberman, for the Senate nomination in a debate.  I wasn't feeling so good about this race a few weeks ago; it had stagnated, and the polling reflected that and will still reflect that for a week or so.  Today, I think there was a decisive shift both in the dynamic of the race and in the tone of the political environment.

It's not that Lamont has overperformed, or that Joe has melted down, it's that Connecticut Election 2006 has gone off the deep end.  It's not your normal white picket fence suburban election, with attack ad facing attack ad.  No, this is more like a white picket fence election that suddenly gets bored with life and decides to live in the forest, take a bunch of LSD, trout-fish naked, and taunt a bear cub before ending its life suddenly and with total and inexplicable resolution on November 7.  Well not really, but there's no analogy that I can think of summarizing what's going on.  What has happened is that Joe Lieberman competed in a Democratic primary, lost, and is now competing in a Republican primary, and is losing again.  Meanwhile, Lamont is finally picking up renewed steam and getting back on track as a candidate.  There's energy here, real energy.

Experienced Connecticut politicos consider this the strangest modern election in the state's history, with the possible exception of the Presidential election in 1992.  And actually, there are a lot of parallels between Alan Schlesinger and Ross Perot.  Both are charismatic, and both tap into a xenophobic and charming right-wing populist streak in the American electorate focusing on closed borders and the insolvency of entitlements.  2006 is somewhat similar to 1992, with a stagnating economy and uncertainty about America's place in the world.  Both Perot and Schlesinger see themselves as truth-tellers rather than politicians, and if there were a single slogan that both were running on, it would be 'Go fuck yourself'.  And don't kid yourself, lots of voters really like Billy Idol-style politicians, and would vote for them to protest too much Pat Boone-style platitudes.

This afternoon was the second debate out of three, and it included five candidates (or a whole lot of hot political manflesh): Democrat Ned Lamont, Connecticut for Lieberman candidate Joe Lieberman, Republican Alan Schlesinger, Green Ralph Ferrucci, and Tim Knibbs of Concerned Citizens.

The pace of the debate was slow because of all the candidates.  The forum was arranged in a semi-circle, with five podiums, one for each candidate.  Strangely, the debate won't be broadcast until tomorrow night, and all electronic equipment except what you can sneak in was banned.  Before it started, the Lieberman and Lamont staffers were milling around, including Dan Gerstein, who apparently whispered after he saw his mortal enemy for the first time, "I should have stuck my foot out and tripped Sirota as he walked by."  Ladies, I believe that this classy man is as single as they come, and exfoliates to boot.

Most campaign staff went downstairs prior to the debate, to some lair with electronic equipment that every staffer from all five campaigns had to share.  Awkward.  Apparently the Joe people were quite mad every time Alan took a swipe at Senator Lieberman's 'liberal' record.  They're good at righteous indignation.

The other two candidates weren't very articulate, breaking up the timing and making the whole thing less fun to watch.  Bob Schieffer of ABC News moderated, and he's a rock solid moderator of a man who has 40 or 50 years experience sounding earnest and being famous.  Schieffer wasn't taking shit from anyone, including Joe Lieberman, and he was ruthless about timing the candidates.  I've moderated a few panels in my day, and it's really hard to cut someone off, so I appreciate a master at work.  Bob Schieffer gives good debate.

And onward to the candidates.

Let's start with Joe Lieberman, a petulant and brilliantly good liar who always gives me the feeling that he just likes wearing diapers because they make him feel safer.  On Monday, Lieberman was shocked that his feisty Republican opponent criticized him for voting with the Democrats 90% of the time.  To understand this debate, you have to understand that Joe is a very self-centered man, and honestly believes that this election should be renamed 'Joe Lieberman Tribute Season'.  He thinks that voters think about things like Committee seniority and how awesome his parking place is outside of the Dirksen Senate office building (to be fair to Joe, it is a really good parking spot).

This means that he also buys into the ridiculous idea that Democrats are mean, and Republicans are nice.  Thus, a Republican attacking him from the right was not only shocking, it was problematic, since his strategy hinges on getting votes from conservatives and moderates to hold off dirty fucking hippies like businessman Ned Lamont and his venture capitalist wife, Annie.  Lieberman didn't quite know what to do about getting attacked from the right and the left, so he bragged about everything he had done for Connecticut, the pork and funding he had brought home, and the work he had put in on all the little micro-issues.  At one point, he said something particularly revealing, saying that he couldn't have delivered all the pork he had if he didn't work across the aisle, since the Republicans have been in the majority for so long.  It was interesting to hear a politician so succinctly make the crass argument for political appeasement, but that's all that's left for Joe.

So my sense is that Joe didn't do that well, but he's a really good liar.  As I mentioned before, most of his time was spent talking about all the pork he had delivered for Connecticut and being cut off by Bob Schieffer, the moderator, for going over time every singe answer and rebuttal (seriously, watch for that tomorrow night).  In a question Joe answered about all the ways he's vowed to vacillate on Social Security, Lieberman bragged about personally passing a bill in August to protect corporate pensions.  Naturally, after the debate it was revealed that Lieberman actually skipped the vote on the final bill.  Thankfully, we were treated to the pleasurable moments when Schieffer cut off Joe's mike after the first six times Joe tried to go over his allotted time.  How awesome would it be if Joe were always moderated by Bob Schieffer, 24 hours a day?  Pretty awesome.  Kiss Float

And now we come to Alan Schlesinger.  Ironically, if you were in Connecticut over the past two months, you wouldn't have known there was a Democratic wave in the rest of the country.  That's how stagnant the race had become.  Fortunately, Alan Schlesinger just shattered the status quo here and injected a sense of fun, making this race what it's needed to be for awhile, a friggin' carnival.  Lamont stayed still for a month or two, and as Foley got caught molesting boys and the Republicans got caught being Republicans, no one really noticed the groundwork being laid against Lieberman by an increasingly angry and passionate Alan Schlesinger.  He was watching, and waiting, and practicing, and now it turns out he's very, very good.  Republicans and conservative unaffiliated voters are now torn between their heads and their hearts, because Schlesinger really delivered, once again.

His passions are Social Security and immigration, and he really understood how to cut through Lieberman's arguments with dramatic flair and effective use of detail.  There were two particularly exciting moments.  The first was when Alan did a comedy routine with Lamont, cutting through Joe's central thesis that he is somehow above Washington even though he's been there for 18 years.  It was something along the following lines:

Schlesinger: If you had someone doing a job for eighteen years, and after eighteen years, their record was one of complete failure, what would you do? What do you think should happen with that person?. . . Ned, you're a businessman: what would you say about someone like that?

Lamont: I'd say, "It's time to go, Joe!"

Schlesinger's closing statement was also terrific, as he went down every argument that conservatives had for voting for Lieberman and blew them out of the water.  He called Lieberman a tax-and-spend liberal, more liberal than Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and even Ned Lamont.  Alan is very smart and Joe was not prepared for this kind of attack, at all.  I'm excited to get you clips tomorrow.

Finally, we get to Lamont.  Ned did much better than he has in any debate so far.  He's learning how to be a candidate on the fly, but one thing that's very impressive is how he's getting much more specific in his criticisms of Joe, and in his ability to state what he'll do.  He's done his homework.

Ned is also getting back to the basic themes, like health care's perverse effects on business, Lieberman's vote for the Energy bill, Terry Schiavo, the war in Iraq, and Joe's general cheerleading for the right-wing.  This isn't just the progressive message that worked in the primary, it's a general message that's blowing out Republican candidates around the country.  Ned really brought this one home, and I think Connecticut residents are going to look at Lamont and say 'this guy could be our Senator'.  That's a big hurdle to get over.

All in all, it was an impressive, serious debate, and I don't think you could look at it as anything but a clear victory for Ned Lamont and Alan Schlesinger.  Alan Schlesinger says he's getting in money now, and he's going to go on TV.  I actually think Alan's Perot-style message is quite resonant, and that in a totally freakshow moment he could pull enough votes from Lieberman and Lamont to eke out a weird 37% victory.  That's not likely, but it's in the realm of the possible, real enough that there's now an incentive for Joe's allies to start leaking nasty information about Schlesinger to the press.

After the debate, both Schlesinger and Lamont were mobbed by reporters and supporters outside, but Joe was nowhere to be found.  Some friends here think that Joe is scared to face reporters, but I don't think that's what's going on.  I think Joe actually and honestly doesn't like people and doesn't want to deal with them if he doesn't have to.  That's why he doesn't like or care about doing good visibility events - his ego isn't fed by large crowds since he doesn't think much of people he doesn't know.  Lieberman thinks that he's smarter than everyone else, and when he gets angry he shows it by doing stupid things like skipping the post-debate spin session outside with reporters.

But enough psychobabble, let's get to what this means.  There's going to be a Q-poll coming out shortly that was taken before these debates, so it's pretty meaningless and won't include the Schlesinger surge.  I think it's pretty clear that the anti-establishment wave that's collapsing Republicans all over the country is beginning to crumple Lieberman, just in time.  Alan Schlesinger is the first candidate I've seen who is genuinely tapping into the frustration grassroots conservatives feel with their party, because he's very clearly not supported by the establishment or even President Bush.  As a result, Lieberman has to now make the electability argument to conservative voters, and that's never an easy place to be since it makes your message more complicated.  Lamont can keep on with his progressive message, and he can only grow from here.  And Schlesinger is just making this fun again.

Wow, what a ride.