The political news from Connecticut did not seem earth-shaking on its face, but the New York Times and the Washington Post were both sufficiently alarmed to put the story on page one. Some upstart citizens are talking about challenging their warrior senator, Joe Lieberman, by running an antiwar candidate against him next fall. The Wall Street Journal went ballistic. Its hysterical editorial denounced the “liberal animosity” toward Wall Street’s favorite Democrat.
Possibly, this rump-group assault on the established order will come to nothing, just another angry rant from frustrated Democrats. But it could be the start of something big–a David-and-Goliath challenge that encourages other nascent insurgencies around the country. Rebellion can be fun–who doesn’t enjoy upsetting the mainstream media?–but in these dispiriting times it is also good for one’s mental health. Even better, rebellion could revive the Democratic Party.
Intraparty challenges are one of the most effective ways to get the attention of risk-averse politicians and force them to change their thinking. Even if the targeted politicians are not defeated, they hate intrusions from meddlesome citizens messing with their job-for-life security. And nothing upsets members of Congress like seeing a few of their colleagues abruptly taken down by outsiders with supposedly marginal issues the Washington Club didn’t take seriously. Incumbents will do quite a lot to avoid the same fate.
With persistence and strong convictions, insurgents can change a political party. Witness the right’s slow-motion crusade to conquer and transform the Republican Party. Thirty years ago right-wing activists regularly mounted hopeless challenges to the GOP establishment–including Richard Nixon–and usually lost. They were called “ankle biters” in those days. Today, they are running the party. The right continues to use this tactic to threaten and punish wayward incumbents. The Wall Street-financed Club for Growth ran a right-wing primary opponent against Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania in 2004, and it is doing the same thing to Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island in 2006. New York Times columnist David Brooks astutely observed: “When conservatism was a movement of ideas, it attracted oddballs; now that it’s a movement with power, it attracts sleazeballs.”
The Democratic Party is never going to change substantively and again become a reform party with a serious agenda until some of its blood is spilled in the same fashion. For years, incumbent Dems have distanced themselves from fundamental convictions, confident the party’s “base” wouldn’t do anything about it beyond whimpering. Until now, the cynicism was well founded. Galvanized by the war, disgusted with weak-spined party leaders, the rank-and-file may at last be ready to bite back.
The fuse was lit for Lieberman a few weeks ago, when MoveOn.org let it be known that the web-savvy organization will support a challenger if that’s what its Connecticut members decide to do. “Our first allegiance is to our members,” explains Tom Matzzie, MoveOn’s Washington director, “and they are just as frustrated with the Democrats as anybody else. So they’ve given us the charge to change the Dems, and we’re taking that very seriously.” Politicians and media learned to respect MoveOn in 2004, when it proved its ability to organize people and money.