Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hubris in Connecticut

So far I have avoided commenting on the Connecticut Democratic Senate Primary but now feel compelled to say a few words. I am not generally favorably inclined towards millionaire novices who run against leaders who have worked in the political trenches for years. I am equally leery of incumbents who are (or have become) self-righteous and have come to believe they have a right to their seats in Congress. However, whatever mixed feelings I had about the Connecticut race prior to the election I have none now.

I see Lieberman’s defeat largely as self-inflicted. Despite his experience he seemed to have lost touch with his constituents. He can pat himself on the back all he wants for taking unpopular positions on issues, particularly on the Iraq war, but until he comes home and works with his constituents so they can understand and perhaps change their minds or at least come to an agreement to disagree then he is providing neither leadership nor representation. And this wasn’t just on the issue of Iraq. As the Guardian points out in today’s edition,

… Mr Lieberman is not the only pro-war Democratic senator running for
re-election this autumn - and the others have not faced the kind of challenge
that Mr Lieberman did. Despite his eminence, Mr Lieberman also has a long
history of pursuing his own course on issues other than Iraq - a more
established tradition in the US than here. In an era of political culture wars,
he has always been a social conservative, sometimes pompously so. He angered
many Democrats by attacking Bill Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky affair,
though that speech probably did more than anything to get him on to the ticket
in 2000. He is an opponent of equal rights for gays. He supported federal
intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative
state whose family battled over switching off life support. He was one of the
first to capitulate in the electoral standoff with Mr Bush in Florida in 2000.
And he was accused of neglecting his Connecticut base in favour of the
Washington stage. The cliche that all politics is local was an important factor.
According to Larry Sabato,

… everyone knows the main source of upset was Lieberman's position on the
Iraq War, but his troubles with the issue went much deeper than his stance
alone. Many senators who have taken deeply controversial stands that have
infuriated their party activists have still managed to get re-nominated. Joe
Lieberman forgot to keep the home fires burning; he didn't take the critical
next step of leadership. He voted his conscience, but he neglected to take the
fight to his constituents, to try to convince them that his principled stand was
correct, or at least tolerable. There's some arrogance in that failing, and
every incumbent of both parties ought to take note.
Senator Lieberman has become convinced of his self-importance by Washington insiders who saw only disaster if the voters of Connecticut decided it was time for a change. Joshua Marshall writes in this week’s Time,

… It's not just that he wouldn't wash his hands of the Iraq War. Lots
of Democrats won't. It's more than that. He's seemed almost militantly
indifferent to the disaster Iraq has become. And his passion about the war
seemed reserved exclusively for those who questioned it rather than those who
had so clearly botched the enterprise. His continual embrace of President Bush —
both literal and figurative — was an insult to Democrats, the great majority of
whom believe Bush has governed as one of the most destructive Presidents in
modern American history. It's almost as though Lieberman has gone out of his way to provoke and offend Democrats on every point possible, often, seemingly,
purely for the reason of provoking. Is it any wonder the guy got whacked in a
party primary?

If this were just a matter of Joe Lieberman's hubris and
obliviousness, the story of his demise might have a human significance but not a
larger political one. But the Lieberman train wreck is also part of the
unfolding story of the 2006 election cycle and the dangerous gulf widening
between Washington and the country at large.

Lieberman got in trouble because he let himself live in the bubble
of D.C. conventional wisdom and A-list punditry. He flattered them; and they
loved him back. And as part of that club he was part of the delusion and denial
that has sustained our enterprise in Iraq for the last three years. In the weeks
leading up to Tuesday's primary, A-list D.C. pundits were writing columns
portraying Lieberman's possible defeat as some sort of cataclysmic event that
might foreshadow a dark new phase in American politics — as though voters
choosing new representation were on a par with abolishing the Constitution or
condoning political violence. But those breathless plaints only showed how
disconnected they are from what's happening in the country at large. They
mirrored his disconnection from the politics of the moment.

Lieberman insisted on having it both ways in this election. Somewhat reminiscent of his simultaneous bet hedging run for the Vice Presidency and Senate in 2000 he ran for the Senate Democratic nomination while at the same time gather signatures for an independent run if the Democratic voters of Connecticut were not wise enough to ensure his victory for the nomination. That he would only support the nominee of the party if he were the nominee may have seemed a smart move to him but it came with a price. As Larry Sabato points out,

The grand irony of Lieberman's Tuesday defeat, of course, is the likelihood
that more than 5,000 voters out of Lamont's 146,000 total would have voted for
Lieberman had the incumbent pledged to abide by the results of the Democratic
primary, a tiny fraction of the electorate sufficient to reverse the result.
Lieberman's decision to simultaneously seek the Democratic nod and petition his
way onto the ballot as "insurance" proved a woeful political miscalculation and
sent the ultimate mixed message. For all his experiential advantage against
Lamont, it was the incumbent who proved both the inferior decision-maker and
communicator in this classic race. But for Lieberman, hindsight is 20/20.

There is an old saying that there are three political parties in the U.S. – the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Incumbents. Senator Lieberman has certainly come to represent the latter and the defeat of incumbents in Michigan and Georgia as well as Connecticut on Tuesday may represent a mood in the country on the need for changes in Washington. Again, Sabato:
… Lieberman's high-profile defeat in the primary serves as a broader
indication that a significant anti-incumbent mood is afoot this year. Up until
this point in the cycle, we had seen primary challengers of both parties drawing
progressively closer to their incumbent rivals, but only two (in Ohio and
Georgia) had come within 6 percentage points of the incumbent's total. Indeed,
no incumbent governors, senators, or congressmen prior to Tuesday night had lost
their bids for re-nomination, leading the Crystal Ball to believe this year
could be an historical aberration. But on Tuesday night, two congressional
incumbents in addition to Lieberman met with defeat! … The electoral outcomes
this week buttressed the findings of a survey released August 7th by ABC News
and the Washington Post, chiefly that 53 percent of Americans now consider
themselves "anti-incumbent." Although local circumstances without a doubt
weighed heavily in each of the ousters of Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D),
Michigan Rep. Joe Schwarz (R), and Lieberman, their sudden coincidence suggests that a "throw the bums out" sentiment is beginning to resonate as a theme as
Labor Day looms. Could all three of these blows been struck on a Tuesday two or
three months ago? The Crystal Ball doubts it.
Finally, a word of caution from Jacob Weisberg in Slate who worries about the Democratic Party turning on its own while missing the point of larger dangers in the world.

… The problem for the Democrats is that the anti-Lieberman insurgents go far
beyond simply opposing Bush's faulty rationale for the war, his dishonest
argumentation for it, and his incompetent execution of it. Many of them appear
not to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously. They
see Iraq purely as a symptom of a cynical and politicized right-wing response to
Sept. 11, as opposed to a tragic misstep in a bigger conflict. Substantively,
this view indicates a fundamental misapprehension of the problem of terrorism.
Politically, it points the way to perpetual Democratic defeat.

We know
this because we have been here before. The Lamont-Lieberman battle was filled
with echoes and parallels from the Vietnam era. Democratic reformers and
anti-establishment insurgents weren't wrong about that conflict, either. Vietnam
was a terrible mistake for the United States. But like Iraq, Vietnam was a badly
chosen battlefield in a larger conflict with totalitarianism that America had no
choice but to pursue. In turning viciously on stalwarts of the Cold War era like
Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson, anti-war insurgents
called into question the Democratic Party's underlying commitment to challenging
Communist expansion. The party's Vietnam-era drift away from issues of security
and defense—and its association with a radical left hostile to the military and
neutral in the fight between liberalism and communism—helped push a lot of
Americans who didn't much like the Vietnam War into the arms of Richard
Wiesberg’s point is well taken if Democrats are ignoring the larger dangers of the world but I think he reads more into this than is warranted at this point. Lieberman’s uncritical support of the Bush administration’s policy on the war in Iraq was a focal point in the campaign. There seemed to be a distinction between support and uncritical support of these policies he has failed to grasp. The administration’s current handling of the situation in Iraq is a shipwreck. Despite whatever potential for a positive outcome may have existed for a positive outcome in the past is now pretty much gone. I am unconvinced an immediate withdrawal of American troops is a good idea but I am convinced of a need for a radical change in the policy and execution (as well as leadership – i.e., fire Rumsfield) is needed as soon as possible to minimize the bloodshed and stabilize what is happening in that country. Lieberman, by being an uncritical supporter, has become an enabler of bad policy. Other Democrats, who take a hard line on the Middle East, seem to have no problem holding the administration’s fee to the fire. As Andrew Sullivan writes,

…Hawkish Democrats, like Clinton, have managed to maintain support for the
war against Islamist terror, while criticizing the president's staggering
ineptness. Lieberman seemed unable to do this. He appeared more interested in
becoming Rumsfeld's successor than in getting re-elected in blue-state
Connecticut. And it's worth recalling: many Republicans have been more critical
of the Bush administration's war decisions than Lieberman. Lieberman is to
George Will's and Bill Buckley's and Chuck Hagel's and Bill Kristol's right on
We need constructive criticism of the administration by Congress – that’s what checks and balances is supposed to be about. Boosterism by the Republican leadership and Senator Lieberman does our country a disservice. We and the citizens of Connecticut deserve better.

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