A New Jersey Primary About Iraq

040408 lautenberg web A New Jersey Primary About IraqFrank Lautenberg is ripe for defeat in New Jersey’s June Democratic primary, and his opponent, Rob Andrews, looks well-positioned to dislodge him.

Lautenberg is 84 years old, while Andrews is a young-looking 50. The challenger will benefit from future-vs.-past themes. And it’s not as if Democrats feel much personal or political pull toward the incumbent. Lautenberg means little to party chiefs in the state, who care mainly about patronage and public contracts, and the party’s rank-and-file masses have, more than anything, tolerated him through the years, mainly because they haven’t had much choice. Only once has Lautenberg ever faced a Democratic primary, way back in 1982, when he topped a field of nine candidates with 26 percent of the vote.

And yet the match-up with Andrews actually offers a career-saving opportunity to Lautenberg, a chance to prove his usefulness—and importance—to Democratic voters who now dismiss him as an old man struggling to hang on to a cushy job. This is because Andrews was one of the biggest Democratic cheerleaders in Congress for the Iraq war, a war Lautenberg has consistently worked to end since returning to the Senate in 2003.

The key to Andrews’ strategy lies in satisfying Democratic voters that he and Lautenberg share the same broad values. Then the primary would be defined by style and personality, a competition in which the more youthful Andrews and his change message would be at an advantage. But the contrast between Andrews’ hawkish streak and Lautenberg’s strident opposition to the war and Bush’s foreign policy could allow the incumbent senator to paint his challenger as out of step with his party on a defining issue, allowing Lautenberg to claim the defender-of-Democratic-values mantle.

This is clearly Lautenberg’s game plan. The race against Andrews, Lautenberg’s campaign manager said hours after Andrews jumped in, “will be a unique opportunity for Democrats to make a clear choice: Whether to choose Senator Lautenberg, who has consistently stood up to George Bush, or Congressman Andrews, who helped write Bush’s resolution to go to war with Iraq.”

That charge is demonstrably true, and it could have horrific implications for Andrews’ efforts this spring. Back in September 2002, when a reluctant Bush administration agreed to seek Congressional backing for an invasion of Iraq, Andrews, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was one of a handful of Democrats the White House enlisted to cultivate support for a resolution.

“On the question of whether to remove Saddam Hussein from power,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that fall, “Andrews is making sure there is no daylight between him and the President.” The paper noted that Andrews had been lining up meetings with key administration figures for hesitant House Democrats.

Of Iraq’s nonexistent trove of WMD’s, Andrews told the Inquirer: “It seems to me indisputable that in the future Saddam Hussein is going to decide to pass off these weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations for use against the United States.”

What’s more, Andrews was painfully slow in walking away from his endorsement of the war. And while he now favors a troop withdrawal, he has also maintained that, even in hindsight, Saddam Hussein constituted a clear threat to the United States.

“Although [Andrews] wants to ensure that we get the intelligence right next time, he seems to have a considerably lower threshold for when he thinks war is justified,” Juan Melli, the founder of the liberal site BlueJersey.com, wrote this week. “To over-simplify, he’s considerably more hawkish than Lautenberg.”

To be fair, Lautenberg also endorsed the Congressional war authorization in ’02, but far less enthusiastically than Andrews. He also did so as a candidate for the Senate—having been plucked from retirement five weeks before Election Day to replace Robert Torricelli on the Democratic ballot—and not as a member of the Senate.

“I’d like to know what the tactics might be,” Lautenberg said on the ’02 campaign trail, “but in terms of the action, I fully support it.”

It’s important to note that Lautenberg was running in a much different political environment. Bush was highly popular, even in New Jersey, and Lautenberg’s G.O.P. opponent, Doug Forrester, was making a point of his common ground with the president on Iraq. Besides announcing his support for the war, Lautenberg mostly stayed away from the issue as a candidate. And as a senator, he’s steadfastly worked to end the war and bring the troops home.

Andrews’ record on the war and his hawkish foreign policy vision makes him vulnerable to caricaturing as a Bush Democrat—even though he has profound differences with the White House on many other issues. The war is a fundamental, litmus-test issue to many rank-and-file Democrats, something Joe Lieberman discovered in Connecticut two years ago. Lieberman’s heresy was devastatingly encapsulated in “The Kiss,” his affectionate encounter with Bush after the president’s State of the Union address. Connecticut Democrats were inundated with video clips and photos of that moment. In New Jersey, Andrews may have his own pictorial problem: the image of him standing in the Rose Garden with Bush and other Congressional war backers after the ’02 resolution passed is quickly spreading on the Web.

Like many younger challengers, Andrews will be telling New Jersey’s Democrats that he offers change and new ideas. The question is whether Lautenberg has enough ammunition to argue that Andrews represents the wrong ones.