Early last week, a distressing, if not entirely unsurprising, Newsweek poll found that fully 40 percent of American adults continue to believe that Iraq was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks.
It must, then, have been this exasperating chunk of the electorate that Joe Lieberman had in mind when he declared Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that Democrats are doomed in the 2008 presidential race unless they re-embrace the Iraq War.
“I think that’s the best tradition of our party, and if we don’t recapture it … the Democratic candidate is going to have a hard time winning that election next year,” Mr. Lieberman said, likening his own hawkish Iraq posture to Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson – all of them much too deceased to protest such a questionable comparison.
And if losing to the Republicans isn’t enough, Mr. Lieberman also made clear that any Democratic nominee who favors “retreat” risks losing his personal endorsement. After offering praise for Republicans John McCain and Rudy Giuliani for showing independence from their party’s base (and conveniently ignoring the abuse Ron Paul has suffered from the G.O.P. establishment for his war opposition), Connecticut’s junior Senator told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “It does seem to me now that the leading Democratic candidates for President are competing with each other to see which one can more quickly pull more of our troops out of Iraq, while our troops are there fighting and now succeeding with a lot on the line for the future security of the United States of America.”
In truth, the front-running Democratic candidates, all of whom favor a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, are doing just fine ignoring Mr. Lieberman’s electoral prescription. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards all generally hold leads over the most likely Republican nominees. Moreover, surveys show that voters lopsidedly prefer a generic, unnamed Democrat to an unnamed Republican for President. With President Bush’s approval ratings in the toilet, thanks almost entirely to Iraq, the next election is the Democrats’ to lose.
In all, Mr. Lieberman’s “This Week” appearance lasted about 11 minutes, and if anything became clear in that time it’s that his influence over the national political debate is waning – a decline that not many foresaw last November, when Connecticut’s voters returned him to the Senate, prompting talk that a new power-broker, coveted equally by both parties, had been born.
Given the Senate’s partisan balance – 49 Republicans, 49 Democrats (one still recuperating from a December cerebral hemorrhage), and two tie-breaking independents who caucus with the Democrats – Democrats are still technically at Mr. Lieberman’s mercy, their fragile control of the chamber dependent on his continued willingness to live up to his campaign pledge to side with his old party for organizational purposes.
But it’s now apparent that they need nothing more than that from him. Republicans have labored to portray Mr. Lieberman’s defeat in last year’s Senate primary as evidence that the Democratic Party has been over-run by weak-willed McGoverniks, a contention that Mr. Lieberman, in making reference to Democrats’ past vulnerabilities on foreign policy and national security issues, sought to reinforce on Sunday.
That game, however, has ceased to work. In years past – 2004 and 2002, say – a public association with Mr. Lieberman was helpful to Democrats, a reassurance to a more hawkish electorate that they were as “tough” as the G.O.P. But in 2007, embracing Mr. Lieberman’s intransigence is a decided political liability – evidenced most startlingly by a recent poll that found that even 58 percent of Republicans in Iowa want a troop withdrawal in the next six months. When, as he did on Sunday, Mr. Lieberman uses a national television interview to dust off old attacks on the Democratic Party’s foreign policy credentials while at the same time actually declaring that “the surge is working,” it only benefits his former party’s standing with the war-wary public. There are few, if any Democrats, quaking at his threat to endorse a Republican in ’08.
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