Five Minutes With
Ned Lamont—golden child of the liberal blogosphere—rode a wave of anger about the Iraq war to an upset victory in the Democratic Senatorial primary in Connecticut last August, only to be defeated in the general election after Sen. Joe Lieberman decided to stay in the race as an independent. In one of his first interviews since the election, Lamont talks to Campus Progress about his plan to focus on health care reform in Connecticut, how young people have inspired him to take a stance on the genocide in Darfur, what he’s looking for in the next president—and why, “never say never,” he probably won’t run for elected office again.
Campus Progress: The demise of your campaign was a heart-breaking moment for some young progressives. With so much excitement about your campaign online, it was similar to when Howard Dean dropped out of the presidential race in 2004. So what do you say to young people who are looking for the next step? And what is the next step for you?
Ned Lamont: Two things for young people: One, we came out of nowhere, and everybody said it was going to be absolutely impossible. And I think everybody together made a big difference. So as I tell folks wherever I go, don’t think it’s impossible. Stand up and give it a shot; you have no idea where it’s going to lead. I just really believed that Joe Lieberman was wrong on the big issues of the day, and figured that if no one else was going to challenge him, I’d give it a shot. I knew the odds were pretty tough. But who cares? If you believe it, give it a go.
And here we are a month since the election, and I’m staying involved in the issues. The two big ones are the war and health care. I ran around the state of Connecticut, and even during the primary, the issue I got more than anything else was health care. It’s not just the high costs; it’s the fact that people are earning less and working in the service sector. Health care was sort of a metaphor for all that. So I’m trying to figure out how best to stay involved in those two issues.
What are some of the specific actions you’re thinking of taking?
Well, Connecticut has pretty strong Democratic majorities in the state house and state senate, so there’s a real opportunity to get real health care reform in Connecticut. And I have a sort of unique perch: I had a lot of support from labor and progressives, but I’m a business person. So maybe there’s a chance that I can bring together labor and management in a way that makes some real progress.
Something like the Massachusetts plan, which brought labor and business together to support a plan that compelled the majority of employers to offer health insurance to their workers?
Yeah, but in Massachusetts, it’s an individual mandate. I’m not sure if that is the best way to cover everybody. But at least they tried—that’s more than what most of the states are doing. I’d also like to get involved with this issue here in Washington. It’s one of the reasons I am here, talking with the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, and the SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. We’re looking for ways we can influence the debate at the federal level, and then bring it back to the states. Because at the end of the day, it’s the states that are going to be taking a lead on a lot of these big issues that Washington has been AWOL on.
Your other major issue was the war in Iraq. What do you think of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations and the reactions to them?
I thought the recommendations were pretty good. From a practical point of view, they seem to be saying you can’t win this thing militarily. So whether it’s six months or 12 months, at the end of the day we’re stepping back, whether the Iraqis stand up or not.
Remember a year ago the phrase was, “We’ll stand down only when the Iraqis stand up”? Baker-Hamilton said that we’re going to stand down whether or not the Iraqis can stand up, because only the Iraqis can solve this for themselves. So take that for what it is. I wouldn’t quibble about the timeline so much. Let’s get behind it. But my hunch is it’s going to be like fruit salad. Some are going to take the cantaloupe, and some are going to take the peaches, and we’re going to be in the same place six months from now as we are now. That’s what really worries me.
Young people are really passionate and engaged in fighting the genocide in Darfur. Why do you think that is?
From the young people I heard, “This is not America. This is not America. Darfur, Haditha, and Guantánamo, this is not America.”
So there’s a sense that we’re losing the moral high ground and that America is a much stronger country when we are true to our values. That’s what I heard when I went to campuses. And I think that Darfur was sort of part of that. My God, this is a tragedy that is unfolding before our very eyes, and for three years we’ve said it is genocide, and for three years we’ve done nothing. Just because we had the wrong response in Iraq doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try for the right response in Darfur. And if it means working with the Arab League or the African Union or the United Nations, take the lead and start making it happen. And so what I’ve heard a lot at high schools, because the pictures are so poignant, was, “Take the lead.”
Between the internet and working with your type of folks, there’s a real way for you to generate grassroots support. In our campaign we had no institutional support at all, Republican or Democratic. So there’s a lot you can do electronically and online, and that can start in college. I like the blogs. I am 52 years old, and I was not an expert on blogs a year ago, but I am now.
They’ve been good to you, haven’t they?
Yeah. When nobody would touch our campaign, it was MyDD and DailyKos, and then a whole bunch of local blogs in the state of Connecticut that said, “I don’t know a damn thing about Ned Lamont, but I know a lot about Joe Lieberman. So why not show up at Naples Pizza and hear what this guy has to say?”
What are your thoughts on more potential challenges to Democratic apostates?
I think that primaries are good. I think it brings these incumbents who have grown incredibly distant back to their states. Too many of these guys have a safe seat. In the case of Connecticut, Republicans haven’t had a Senate seat since Weicker, and that was the 1970s when he was first elected. So I think that primaries are a way to hold incumbents accountable, make them earn their keep and give voters a little more choice.
Let’s face it: There was more energy in the primary than in the general election. It was a real, fundamental choice that people had. And the netroots and grassroots can be real helpful in that. There’s no litmus test you have to hold people accountable to, but giving people a choice is good.
Your critics had two major fears: One was the possibility that, had the Republican in Connecticut been a more credible candidate, you and Lieberman could have split the left-of-center vote and drove the election to the Republican. And secondly, some say your campaign could have pushed Lieberman into switching parties and cost the Democrats their majority.
I think a lot of Democrats got their voice after the August 8 primary. And I think by being bold and clear and true to where we stand, a lot of Democrats got elected. I don’t feel at all bad about what we did there. I think that we haven’t really changed Senator Lieberman in any way. He was always on both sides of a lot of very important issues. And he’s still voting with the Democratic caucus. I guess there’s always a threat he could jump ship, but there was always a threat he could jump ship.
What are a couple of stances you’re looking for from the next president?
Any nominee has to be clear on health care and on the war. Those are the two defining issues of our day. Do you support universal coverage? I think we should hold people accountable there. Places like the Center for American Progress will give them a couple ways to get from here to universal coverage.
And I think you got to be clear on the war. We can’t afford a year from now to have another six-month trial period and make up our mind next June or a year from June. Too many people are dying, and this is a war that has made America much less safe and destabilized the Middle East. So I think it’s time to ask people to be clear.
Do you feel like elected office is somewhere in your future, or is that something that you’ve put behind you?
You never say never, but Joe was a special situation for me. I wouldn’t be running for office just to get back into the political game. There are a lot of other ways you can serve. But if there was a unique circumstance, you never know.
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