Among turncoat Democratic Senators in the Bush era, there was Zell Miller first, and then Joe Lieberman. And now … Carl Levin?
To quote the old Sesame Street tune, one of these things is not like the others.
And yet Mr. Levin, a 73-year-old workhorse who dependably waved his party’s flag when it was far less fashionable to do so than it is now, suddenly finds himself the target of a stinging ad campaign from MoveOn.org, taken to task on his home state’s airwaves for voting against the Reid-Feingold Amendment, which would have barred funding for the Iraq War after next March.
The MoveOn ads won’t matter a lick when Mr. Levin stands for a sixth term next year. His solid reputation gives him more job security than just about anyone in Michigan.
Still, is this any way to treat a friend? After all, Mr. Levin, unlike many of his fellow Democrats, stood with MoveOn in opposing the Iraq War from the very beginning, refusing to vote for its authorization in the fall of 2002. And when Reid-Feingold failed by a 67-29 tally on May 16, his was merely one of 20 Democratic votes against it—some of them cast by Senators with far flimsier anti-war credentials. But MoveOn is using its funds to pillory Mr. Levin, and not any of them.
It’s easy to call this an exercise in cluelessness, an act of spite that will alienate someone who has been MoveOn’s legislative ally 99 percent of the time, with no measurable political benefit.
But consider that some of the other “no” votes were from Democrats who lack Mr. Levin’s electoral invincibility, whether in a primary or general election. The Levin ad—coupled with the memory of MoveOn’s role in derailing Mr. Lieberman in his primary last year—could be a warning to them: If Mr. Levin isn’t sacred, neither are you.
That threat-making is a powerful illustration of the broad sense of betrayal on Iraq that the Democratic base feels just five months after their party formally took control of Congress.
Grass-roots Democrats swallowed hard last year when the party establishment’s strategic calculations—like running anti-abortion candidate Bob Casey for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania—clashed with their hearts. Reid-Feingold was precisely the kind of legislation that was supposed to be their reward.
What followed was instead a crushing disappointment. Reid-Feingold failed (along with a comparable House measure), and then the party broke down over a supplemental war-funding bill: After initially uniting in a push to tie funds to a September 2008 withdrawal date, Congressional Democrats relented in the face of a veto and a follow-up veto threat by President Bush, leaving the war fully funded—with only the most cosmetic strings attached—through this September.
The resulting impulse among war opponents to lash out at establishment Democrats like Carl Levin, in that context, is understandable. But it’s also misplaced.