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JOAN VENNOCHI

Being Joe Lieberman

IT'S ALL ABOUT Joe -- and not just about war.

US Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, announced that he will run as an independent if he loses his party's primary nomination in August.

The three-term senator is billing his decision as a commitment to principle. Mostly, it feels like a commitment to Lieberman.

Lieberman is entitled to his opinion about war in Iraq, which he supports.

Lieberman is also entitled to run as an independent if Democratic primary voters reject his opinion on war. But, if he does run as a prowar independent, his party is entitled to support the actual primary winner -- not Lieberman.

Lieberman's primary fight against millionaire businessman Ned Lamont illustrates the schism in the Democratic Party over Iraq. Lamont's campaign is fueled and financed by the antiwar left. His website salutes US Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania and the proposition that ``stay the course is not a winning strategy." Lieberman supports Bush administration policy regarding Iraq and insists the war is still necessary and justified. But war is not the only issue on the primary ballot, even though Lieberman prefers to paint it that way. This isn't simply ``Profiles in Courage," starring Joe Lieberman. It is ``Profiles in Lieberman," starring a politician who irritated his party via sanctimony and loyalty to self, and must live with the political consequences. Al Gore, his running mate in 2000, is declining to endorse him in the primary and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York said she will not back Lieberman if he loses their party primary.

Lieberman was the first prominent Democrat to chastise Bill Clinton for his Oval Office escapades with Monica Lewinsky. In 1998, he called Clinton's actions ``immoral" and ``inappropriate" and railed against the president for ``willfully deceiving the nation about his conduct." At the time, he took the public praise for taking on a president of his own party; now Lieberman has to accept the latent party ill-will. It would also be nice to hear him express some similar moral outrage over the Bush administration's deceptions involving the case for war.

Lieberman further irritated fellow Democrats in 2000 when he was the vice presidential nominee, but refused to end his US Senate campaign. If the Gore-Lieberman ticket had prevailed, Connecticut's Republican governor could have appointed a Republican to replace Lieberman in the US Senate. After the 2000 defeat, Lieberman criticized Gore's populist presidential campaign and Gore returned the favor by backing Howard Dean's presidential bid without informing Lieberman, who was making his own unsuccessful presidential primary run in 2004.

In short, Lieberman has been thinking about Lieberman. So, he can't be shocked if other Democrats are thinking of themselves first, just as he does.

Antiwar Democrats may be as out of touch as Wall Street Journal editorial page writers hope they are. But as Republicans have proven, a political party has to stand for something in order to win elections. Lieberman versus Lamont makes the war the critical election issue, giving primary voters a clear choice between two candidates who stand for two different positions.

Lieberman might yet win the Senate primary contest. If he does, that should sober up Democrats like Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, whose freshly fervent antiwar commitment is part of a left-tilting presidential primary strategy. It could also fortify Hillary Clinton supporters, who worry she is alienating primary voters with her continuing refusal to back a specific timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

But if Lieberman loses, it demonstrates the power of an antiwar message with the primary-voting slice of the Democratic Party. One segment of the people will have spoken and they happen to be a segment Lieberman represents as a Democrat. He is free to go forward and run as an independent, but why should any Democratic officeholder back him instead of the party nominee? That is what party loyalty is all about, take it or leave it. Lieberman abandoned the notion of loyalty when it suited his purposes. Why should he expect any loyalty from Democrats?

If Lieberman runs and wins as a prowar independent, it might mean the antiwar platform is as narrow as conservatives pray it is.

But, if Lieberman runs and wins as an independent, it also says something about the power of incumbency -- and the reluctance of incumbents to give up on that power.

Say it ain't so, Joe.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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