LESSONS FROM LIEBERMAN’S LOSS

by David P. Rebovich The power of incumbency. Interest group support. Endorsements from party organizations and popular elected officials. More campaign funds. Three-term U.S. Senator, former Democratic vice presidential nominee and 2004 presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman had all of these advantages going into the August 8th Connecticut primary. And, until a few months ago it seemed that the statesmanlike, pro-war, and sometimes centrist Senator would be re-nominated by his fellow Democrats in the Nutmeg state. Of course that did not happen. Multimillionaire political newcomer Ned Lamont, who ran on an anti-war platform, beat Lieberman 52 to 48 percent. The primary campaign was marked by harsh accusations, high turnout, and unprecedented involvement by out-of-state activists, mostly via blogs and e-mails. The proud incumbent, hurt and embarrassed by his loss, immediately announced his plan to run as an independent this fall. If he is able to retain support from some Democrats, attract lots of moderate, unaffiliated voters, and swing some Republicans to his side in November, Lieberman may be reelected. But he no longer has the support of ranking Democrats like Senators Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton and the New Jersey duo of Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez, all of whom want Lieberman to honor the results of the primary. Key Democrats have also suggested that if Lieberman runs as an independent he may jeopardize the prospects of some Democratic House candidates in Connecticut. But the big question that’s being asked by political analysts is what, if anything, Lamont’s victory means for this fall’s general election. As soon as the results were in, the spin machines of both parties kicked into high gear. As usual, it is dangerous to try to read too much from the results of this one race. But there are some aspects of this primary that Republicans and Democrats should not ignore. Republicans were quick to label Lamont’s victory as evidence that Democrats have moved far to the left and cannot be trusted on fighting terrorism at home and abroad. RNC chair Ken Mehlman shot out an e-mail that claimed that Democrats will not only “cut and run” from the war in Iraq but from the “war on terror” generally and “surrender…tools needed to keep America safe.” Mehlman criticized Representative John Murtha, who wants to be the next Majority Leader, for saying, “We’ve become the enemy” and for, like so many Democrats, choosing “weakness over strength” and blaming America first for the world’s problems. GOP commentators have also been saying that Lamont’s nomination shows that other Democratic candidates will be inclined to move to the left this fall to try to be competitive this fall. On these terms, voting for Democrats will represent support for ultra-liberal bloggers and the likes of Michael Moore, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, political opportunists who exaggerate problems and whose views are out of sync with majority opinion. Lamont would not have ever been competitive, much less have won, without the involvement of these out-of-state agitators who will now try to force their views on other Democratic candidates. This argument serves two important purposes for Republicans this campaign season. First, it does draw attention to the recent ascent of liberals, especially anti-war liberals, among the ranks of Democrats. Polls may show that a strong majority of Americans now believe the war in Iraq is a mistake. But only 20 percent call themselves liberals. Now this doesn’t mean that most Americans are pro-life, anti-stem cell research, for weak environmental regulations, and against strict gun control. But it does mean that many voters are not likely to be pleased if they think that the alternative to Bush-friendly Republicans, or to someone like Lieberman, are tax and spend Democrats who will hurt the economy and the fabric of society at home and placate bad guys abroad. This latter point leads to the second purpose of this argument. Republicans don’t want to argue with Democrats on the campaign trail or in the media over specific issues like the war in Iraq, energy prices, immigration, affordable health care, the availability of good paying jobs or abortion, stem cell research and the environment. For months polls have shown that most voters believe that Democrats will do a better job than the GOP on all of these issues. As such, Republicans would rather continue focusing on topics like character and values and contrast what the parties presumably stand for in broad terms. So it’s no real surprise that they interpret Lamont’s victory as a triumph of anti-war elites from academia, bohemian communities, and Howard Dean’s ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign. Voting for Democrats would mean returning to expensive, intrusive and failed social policies, a decline in support for family values, and backsliding on the war on terror. Given the arrests of terrorists in Great Britain last week who were plotting to blow up passenger jets, America needs to aggressively fight terrorism. Of course, Democratic leaders have a dramatically different view of the meaning of the Lamont-Lieberman primary. Voters simply perceived Lieberman as being to close too President Bush on the war in Iraq and unwilling to admit obvious problems with the war. And, Americans are strongly against how the President, his Administration, and the Republican-controlled Congress are conducting the war and their inability to make progress in other important policy areas. Thus, votes for Lamont were actually votes against President Bush and an indication that GOP House and Senate candidates in competitive races should be worried about their prospects this fall. There is something to be said for both the Republican and Democratic analyses of the Lamont-Liberman primary. Most Democratic House and Senate candidates will want to be appropriately critical of the war effort. But they will hurt themselves with swing voters, the very people who decide the nature of competitive races, by seeming to be very liberal on some other issues like immigration, entitlement programs, and taxes. Republicans in competitive races will be well-advised to not deny what every America knows – the war in Iraq is not going well and changes in strategy may be necessary. Loyalty to the Bush Administration should not require political suicide. It should require recognizing that in Connecticut at least, Democrats were able to expand the electorate by appealing to citizens’ anger about the party in power, its policies, and a president who does not have many successes on his resume. In 2004, Republicans were able to target and mobilize many traditional, religious folks and get them to the polls to help Bush carry Ohio and improve the prospects of GOP House and Senate candidates elsewhere. In 2006 the wildcard on Election Day will be citizens who are disagree with the war in Iraq and are disappointed with the President. If Democrats get many of them to the polls, they are likely to win a majority in the House. That is, unless Republican candidates under the gun get a little religion and see the political virtue of showing voters that they too can offer the White House some constructive criticism. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He writes a weekly column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine. He also is a member of CQPoltiics.com’s Board of Advisors that provides weekly commentary on national political developments.

LESSONS FROM LIEBERMAN’S LOSS