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Primary elections always matter. But some primary elections matter more than others; indeed, some primary elections define the character not just of a particular official's term, or even of a legislative or congressional session, but of the nation's politics for years to come.
Residents of the state of Wisconsin, where my family has resided for seven generations, know this better than the citizens of most states. Sixty years ago this month, Republican primary voters turned out one of the greatest senators in the history of the United States, Robert M. La Follette Jr., and replaced him with one of the lousiest excuses for an elected leader this country has ever produced, Joe McCarthy.
The Wisconsin Republican Senate primary of 1946 set the wheels in motion for the Red Scare of the 1950s, to which McCarthy lent his name and his sordid tactics. It is true that Richard Nixon and others would have ginned up some sort of anti-communist propaganda campaign, but it is doubtful that it would ever have done the damage to civil liberties and public life that McCarthy achieved with his unparalleled lies and cruelty.
That Republican primary also began the long descent of the Grand Old Party, which had once laid a far stronger claim than the Democratic Party to the progressive mantle, into the pit of petty bigotry, reaction and neoconservative fantasy that now defines it.
La Follette lost by only 5,000 votes in August, 1946, but the margin did not matter. With the defeat of the maverick senator, who had supported extension of Roosevelt's New Deal at home while wisely questioning schemes for post-World War II military adventures abroad, the era of the old-school Midwestern progressivism came to a close. And American politics entered a dramatically uglier and more irrational period from which it has yet to fully emerge.
If anyone doubts this, consider the recent editorial attack on Ned Lamont, the mainstream liberal who defeated U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Aug. 8 Democratic primary, by the conservative Waterbury Republican-American newspaper.
Entitled "Ned Lamont's True Colors," the Sunday editorial in one of Connecticut's larger daily newspapers was classic McCarthyism. "Red Ned may label himself a progressive, but when he espouses goals shared by Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, et al., he gives away his true color," wrote the paper's editors of Lamont, a successful businessman who espouses views no more radical than those of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and dozens of other House and Senate members including a few anti-war Republicans.
The newspaper alleged that "(Lamont) has surrounded himself with people who may be characterized fairly as dedicated socialists and borderline communists," when in fact Lamont's primary supporters were grass-roots Democrats who were frustrated with Lieberman's allegiance to the Bush administration's failed foreign policy.
The Republican-American editorial also claimed that "liberal journalists adore (Lamont) because they share his world view on abortion, homosexual marriage, universal health care, racial quotas, loopy environmentalism and especially the war against Islamic terrorism. They are blood brothers, or more accurately, fellow travelers. Just as journalism has become a hornet's nest of socialism (communism not yet perfected), if you shake Lamont's family tree, a lot of Red apples will fall."
Spouting innuendo and inaccuracy with abandon, the newspaper sought to claim that Lamont's blue-blood family including J.P. Morgan's partner, Thomas Lamont, and civil libertarian Corliss Lamont was nothing less than Stalin's fifth column in the United States. The paper conveniently forgot to mention that Corliss Lamont, though certainly a man of the left, authored a much-noted tract titled "Why I Am Not a Communist."
While the Republican-American may be guilty of lax journalism, the real shame belongs to Lieberman's independent campaign, which has spread the Waterbury paper's fantastic claims. The senator's communications director even quoted the editorial in a widely circulated statement on the race.
With the help of the Waterbury Republican-American, Joe Lieberman is keeping alive the politics of another Joe: the one named McCarthy. And in so doing, Lieberman's proving that the shock waves from a primary election in the summer of 1946 are still being felt in this summer of another primary election that has dislodged another senior senator.
When Russ Feingold first argued that the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program was in clear violation of federal law and the spirit of the Constitution, and that the Senate must censure the president for his wrongdoing, the maverick senator was condemned by the White House, ridiculed by Republicans and given the cold shoulder by most Democrats.
But, now, the Wisconsin Democrat who in March proposed that the Senate censure Bush for flagrantly disregarding the law has a federal judge on his side. And the question becomes: When will Democratic and Republican members of the Senate join Feingold in demanding that the administration be held to account for its assaults on basic liberties and the rule of law?
Ruling on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of journalists, scholars and lawyers who expressed concern that the National Security Agency's spying initiative had made it difficult for them to develop and maintain legitimate international contacts and professional relationships, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit determined Thuesday that the warrantless wiretapping scheme is unconstitutional and ordered its immediate halt.
Holding that the spying program that was authorized and defended by President Bush violates the rights to free speech and privacy as well as the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, Taylor wrote in a 43-page opinion that: "Plaintiffs have prevailed, and the public interest is clear, in this matter. It is the upholding of our Constitution."
The decision by Judge Taylor offers vindication for Feingold, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, who has argued since the NSA wiretapping was exposed last year that the president had dramatically overstepped his powers in authorizing the program.
"Today's district court ruling is a strong rebuke of this administration's illegal wiretapping program," Feingold said on Thursday. "The President must return to the Constitution and follow the statutes passed by Congress. We all want our government to monitor suspected terrorists, but there is no reason for it to break the law to do so. The administration went too far with the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Today's federal court decision is an important step toward checking the President's power grab."
The key words in that statement are "an important step." The ruling by Judge Taylor, while significant, does not mark the end of this fight.
This administration will continue to battle judicial efforts to require the president to follow the law.
Ultimately, the job of demanding accountability will fall to the Senate.
At this point, Feingold has only a handful of Senate allies. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin and California Democrat Barbara Boxer have been with the Wisconsinite since he proposed censure in March. In May, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry signed on. But most Democrats, including New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have refused to embrace the proposal.
With the courts stepping in, the time for Democrats and responsible Republicans to step up is now. A failure by senators to respect their duty to check and balance a lawless president makes those disengaged legislators as much a part of the problem as an abusive executive.
At the beginning of what is shaping up as America's summer of discontent, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" for a discussion about his opposition to the war in Iraq and the prospect that he might seek the presidency in 2008 as the candidate of Democrats who want their party to propose a dramatic departure from Bush administration foreign and domestic policies.
The program's host, Tim Russert, asked Feingold: "When will you decide whether you're running?"
"I'm going to look at this, Tim, after the elections in 2006," replied the maverick senator from Wisconsin. "I need to look at what happens in the congressional races -- how are the ideas I've been presenting resonating with the American people -- and decide whether this is something that makes sense or whether it's better for me to remain in the United States Senate."
On August 8, months before the point in November when all the 2006 results will be known, Feingold has gotten a strong and positive signal about how the ideas he's been presenting are resonating.
Anti-war challenger Ned Lamont's Connecticut Democratic primary win over pro-war incumbent U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman Tuesday was a clear victory for the activist wing of the Democratic Party that -- if liberal Internet blogs are to be believed -- sees Feingold as perhaps its most attractive contender for the party's presidential nomination in 2008.
On the morning after the Connecticut results came in, Feingold notes, a former staffer told him, "Hey, if you were looking for an excuse to not run for president, Russ, you didn't get it last night."
Feingold, whose Progressive Patriots Fund political action committee dispatched a check for $5000 to the Lamont campaign on Wednesday, describes the primary win by the anti-war challenger as "an affirmation of something much larger than Joe Lieberman or Ned Lamont."
The message to Democratic leaders who are still uncertain about whether to aggressively oppose the war, said Feingold, was beyond debate: "You are simply not listening if you don't know that the American people have had it with this mistake and want it to end."
Feingold's not just jumping on the Lamont bandwagon.
The Wisconsin Democrat was the first member of the party's Senate caucus to speak favorably about the primary challenge by anti-war businessman Lamont to Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who has been the party's most high-profile supporter of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration foreign policies that Feingold has so vehemently opposed.
Back in June, when he spoke to Russert, Feingold pointedly refused to endorse Lieberman for re-election, splitting with most other Senate Democrats and most of the party's Washington establishment. While he did not endorse officially endorse the challenger, the Wisconsin senator said, "I think Ned Lamont's positions on the issues are much closer to mine on the critical issues."
Now that Lamont has defeated Lieberman, Feingold has an indication that his ideas are resonating with Democratic voters -- and candidates.
In fact, Lamont cites Feingold as an inspiration and says he would side with the senator on many matters, including a controversial move to censure President Bush for authorizing the controversial warrantless wiretapping program from which most Democratic senators have distanced themselves.
For his part, Feingold says that Lieberman's "extreme support of this ... obviously mistaken (Iraq war) policy that has hurt so many Americans has put him in political jeopardy."
The Wisconsinite also argues that the Lamont victory sends a signal that Democrats can oppose the war and still be seen as friends and supporters of the troops, a theme Lamont echoed in his victory speech Tuesday night when he said: "We have 132,000 of our bravest troops stuck in a bloody civil war in Iraq and I say its time to bring them home to a hero's welcome."
It is not difficult to imagine Feingold borrowing that line from Lamont as he heads out on the presidential campaign trail, just as the Connecticut candidate borrowed themes from the Wisconsin senator. The Connecticut results are only a piece of the puzzle for Feingold, who has taken steps to build the organization needed to mount a presidential run and has traveled frequently to Iowa, New Hampshire and other early caucus and primary states in recent months.
But it's a significant piece. Lamont's win appears to indicate that the Wisconsin senator's unapologetic progressive positions -- a "Bring the Troops Home" stance on the war, strong support for civil liberties at home, opposition to Bush administration trade and economic policies -- have far more appeal among grass-roots Democrats than they do with the party's Washington elites.
Feingold has long complained that congressional Democrats who fail to support calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq are out of touch not just with their own party but with the country.
"Those who vote against bringing the troops home don't get it. They're not out there enough. They're not listening to the people. Frankly, they're not even looking at the polls," says the senator.
"I have been all over Wisconsin, all 72 counties, to 12 different states. I can tell you, the one thing I'm sure of [is that] the American people have had it with this intervention. They do want a timetable for bringing home the troops."
That message would likely be at the heart of a Feingold presidential campaign, along with the senator's suggestion that Democrats need to be bolder in their opposition to Republican policies.
"We lost in 2000, we lost in 2002, we lost in 2004," says Feingold. "Why don't we try something different, like listening to the American people?"
Connecticut voters echoed that theme on Tuesday. But in so doing, they may have complicated things for Feingold. The one thing that could trip up the Wisconsin senator's leap onto the national stage could be the fact that a number of other Democratic presidential prospects also seem to be getting the message from Connecticut.
Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who frustrated many Democrats with his tepid stance on the war as the party's 2004 presidential nominee, this year co-sponsored Feingold's call for a withdrawal timeline. Though Kerry and Feingold are working together on the Senate floor, there is a strong sense among political observers that the Massachusetts senator is trying to occupy the political high ground that Feingold previously had pretty much had to himself.
Former North Carolina U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee and an all-but-announced 2008 contender, has publicly apologized for voting in 2002 to authorize Bush to attack Iraq. Edwards as well, has been taking Feingold-like stands on a host of issues. This coming week, he will campaign in Connecticut with Lamont.
Even New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner in 2008, has begun to back off her pro-war position, which until recently was only slightly less strident than Lieberman's.
Clinton did not vote for the June Senate resolution that Feingold and Kerry proposed to establish a withdrawal timeline, but she did back a milder resolution sponsored by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin and Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed that prodded the Bush administration to begin taking steps to draw down the troop presence in Iraq.
Last week, as the Connecticut primary approached, Clinton engaged in uncharacteristically aggressive questioning of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a Senate hearing.
Though she and most other top Democrats backed Lieberman in the primary, Clinton distanced herself from the incumbent in July after he announced that if he lost the Democratic nomination he would campaign in November as an independent.
Clinton said she would back the winner of the primary, in a move that effectively shut down talk that Washington Democrats might stick with Lieberman even if he was rejected by the Democratic voters of Connecticut. On the Wednesday after the primary, she made good on her pledge by warmly endorsing Lamont, as did most other Democratic party leaders.
Like many of her other recent moves, Clinton's declaration of party loyalty was an indication that she and other Washington Democrats are increasingly aware -- and perhaps even respectful -- of the anti-war ferment at the party's grassroots. With an anti-war Democratic primary challenger of her own, labor activist Jonathan Tasini, Clinton does not want to end up in Lieberman's position. Nor does she want to cede too much political ground to Feingold.
After all, while Clinton is the clear leader in most early polls, a New Republic cover of some months ago pictured the New York senator as a sword-swinging Goliath. Feingold was also pictured ... as slingshot-wielding David.
Now that Connecticut Democrats have rejected a Democratic senator who backed the war in much the same language that Clinton has, the anti-war David of the Democratic Party is surely standing a little taller -- and feeling a little more confident as he considers a presidential run.
George Bush is vacationing in Texas, and members of Congress – with the notable exception of Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Ohio Democratic Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur and a handful of others – have taken the president's exit from Washington as an excuse to put any concerns regarding the crisis in the Middle East on hold until the dog days of August have passed.
Not so in Britain, where members of Parliament take more seriously there responsibility to consider what is being done in their name but without their informed consent.
With British Prime Minister Tony Blair following President Bush's "look-the-other-way" lead regarding Israel's continued bombing of civilian targets in Lebanon – with the death toll now hovering around 1,000, and the dislocation of more than 900,000 men, women and children – in a conflict that has also seen dozens of Israeli civilians killed by Hezbollah rocket attacks, leading members of Blair's own Labour party have joined with opposition legislators to demand the recall of Parliament to consider steps Britain could take to stop the killing.
Instead of putting their consciences on hold until the end of August – presumably waiting for the agonizingly slow United Nation deliberations to come up with a plan that will not be implemented until a lot more Lebanese and Israelis die -- more than 150 members of Parliament from across the political spectrum in Britain have signed a call to convene the House of Commons in an effort to promote an immediate ceasefire.
Writing to Commons leader Jack Straw – who last month criticized Blair for failing to condemn Israel's "disproportionate" use of force against civilian targets in Lebanon – the parliamentarians asked that Parliament be brought into session, and into the debate.
"There is huge concern in the country about the current Middle East crisis, and fear that the [Blair government's] early failure to insist that Israel and Hezbollah observe an immediate ceasefire has cost many innocent lives and may continue to do so," they members of Parliament wrote. "In addition, the use by US supply aircraft to refuel at Prestwick airport when transporting bombs and military hardware to be used by the Israel Defence Force in air-raids on densely populated civilian areas has given the impression that the UK has assumed a tacitly active and less than impartial role in the conflict."
Noting polls showing that 70 percent of Brits favor an immediate ceasefire, the letter argued that, "Given the massive concern in the country about these matters, we believe that it is right to allow the Commons to meet in order that the government's strategy can be fully discussed. Parliament is seriously hamstrung at times of crisis by the fact that only the government can recall parliament. It should be noted that 202 cross-party members of parliament have signed a petition calling for an immediate ceasefire.
"In light of the seriousness of current events and the overwhelming parliamentary and public interest in them, I urge you to give the utmost consideration to this letter. It is absolutely vital to the quality of democracy in the United Kingdom that elected representatives voice the concerns of our constituents at such a crucial time."
Here's a thought: If it is vital to democracy in the United Kingdom that legislators address the Middle East crisis, might it not also be vital to democracy in the United States that our Congress do the same thing? Or would that interrupt all the official vacationing?
For whom does the bellwether toll? It tolls for thee, Joe Lieberman – and, more importantly, for the neoconservative vision that you embraced more passionately than other Democrats and most Republicans.
Lieberman, a three-term incumbent whose defenses of the Iraq War and enthusiasm for a fight with Iran made him the Bush administration's favorite Democrat, lost to anti-war challenger Ned Lamont by a solid margin in Tuesday's Connecticut Senate primary.
With most of the votes counted, Lamont was leading by a 52-48 margin, a result that just a few months ago would have been unimaginable.
The Connecticut voting offered a classic bellwether contest. On one side of the Democratic primary ballot was Lieberman, a three-term incumbent who had aligned himself with the Bush administration in support of the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. On the other side was Lamont, the previously unknown challenger who surfed a wave of resentment against the neoconservative nightmare that has gotten the United States bogged down in Iraq, rendered it diplomatically dysfunctional in the Middle East and created more global resentment toward America than at any time in the nation's history.
As such, the Connecticut contest was always about more than one senator and one state. And in the end, with massive media scrutiny and the frenzied attention of political players from across the country, the primary became what former Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker described on primary night as "a referendum on the Iraq war – not just for Connecticut but for the whole country."
At the very least, the Connecticut primary became a referendum on how the Democratic Party ought to respond to a war that it has often questioned but never effectively opposed.
If Connecticut said "no" Lieberman and the war, Lamont supporters in the state and beyond its borders argued during the course of the primary campaign, party leaders might finally be forced to develop a coherent opposition message. And if Democrats developed a spine, the reasoning went, the warped politics of a nation that has been manipulated for the better part of a decade by the fearmongering of White House political czar Karl Rove might finally take a turn away from the madness of a latter-day King George.
"A lot of people around the country are looking to Connecticut to see what course they want for this country," Lamont said as his state began voting Tuesday in the most closely watched U.S. Senate primary the nation has witnessed in decades.
What the country saw was a win for an anti-war candidate over one of the most prominent war supporters in the Senate. It was not so conclusive a win as some Lamont backers had hoped for. The final result was close enough for Lieberman to find encouragement for his planned independent run, setting up a three-way November contest between Democrat Lamont, Republican Alan Schlesinger and the sole candidate of the senator's "Connecticut for Lieberman" party.
If the primary offers any indication, that November contest will be an intense one. And, while many analysts still try to portray Lieberman as the frontrunner, the reality is that Lamont's star is on the rise. And he is on the right side of the issue that polls identify as the biggest concern of Connecticut voters: the war in Iraq.
Make no mistake, Lamont's victory was a breakthrough win for the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party. With a candidate who had no name recognition in January, anti-war Democrats displaced an 18-year incumbent senator who in 2000 was the party's nominee for vice president and who in 2004 mounted a campaign for the party's presidential nomination.
How did Lamont succeed where others – including 2004 presidential contender and current Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean -- failed? Not by simply expressing opposition to the war, nor even by expressing frustration with Lieberman's refusal to question even the most misguided of Bush administration foreign policies.
Lamont won by doing something most national Democrats have failed to do over the past several election cycles. He put the war in perspective, telling voters that the $250 million a day that is shifted from the U.S. Treasury into a failed fight in Iraq and the deep pockets of defense contractors like Halliburton could be better used to pay for education and health care at home and smart foreign aid programs abroad.
The Lamont message was always a far more sophisticated one than most of the national media coverage of the campaign suggested. The challenger rarely spoke just about Iraq, but instead invited voters to join in a broader discussion of foreign policy, American interests and American values. And he never allowed the war debate to be isolated from the debate about how an America that was not bogged down in Iraq might better spend its resources.
Mocking the rhetoric of the Bush administration and Lieberman regarding Iraq, Lamont said on Tuesday night: "Stay the course -- that's not a winning strategy in Iraq and it's not a winning strategy for America." He meant what he was saying. Just as Lamont wants to "[fix] George Bush's failed foreign policy," he also wants to fix failed domestic policies that have produced what he correctly refers to as a "broken" health care system and an education system that leaves too many children behind. And he recognizes the linkages between failures abroad and failures at home.
Connecticut Democrats rewarded that recognition by handing the Senate nomination to Lamont in a historic primary vote.
National Democratic party leaders and strategists, who have had such a hard time figuring out their message going into this fall's House and Senate elections, would be wise to take a lesson from the campaign that Ned Lamont waged, and the result it produced.
The last time that Democratic primary voters turned out a nationally-known U.S. Senator because they did not like where he stood on an issue of war and peace was in 1970, when Texas Democrats rejected anti-war incumbent Ralph Yarborough and replaced him with Lloyd Bentsen, a former congressman who favored taking a tougher line against the Vietcong in Vietnam and against student protesters on the campuses of the United States.
The Texas result was big news nationally, and it played a significant part in the decision of the Nixon White House to try and stir up a "silent majority" backlash to congressional liberals in that fall's Senate races.
Thirty-six years later, in a very different state, Democratic primary voters may avenge Yarborough's loss and set in motion a backlash of another character altogether.
If anti-Iraq War challenger Ned Lamont defeats pro-war incumbent Joe Lieberman in today's contest for the Democratic Senate nod in Connecticut, and if Democrats in Washington finally figure our that no message energizes their base so much as the "Bring the Troops Home" signal that Lamont has sent, then the 2006 election could yet be the referendum on George W. Bush's misguided policies that Democrats denied voters in 2002 and 2004.
There were a lot of "ifs" and "coulds" in that previous paragraph. Here's why: Though Lamont took a poll lead several weeks ago, there were some indications in the final days of the race that Lieberman was making something of a comeback. A Quinnipiac poll released yesterday had Lamont at 51 percent and Lieberman at 45 percent – suggesting a closer contest than the one seen in polls from last week, which had Lamont up by 10 to 13 points.
Could Lieberman still win this thing? It's not beyond the realm of possibility. Though his reelection campaign has been pathetic, and though he is dramatically out of touch with Democrats on the war issue, the incumbent retains strong name recognition, he has most of the major endorsements from interest groups and newspapers in the state, and he has spent a lot of money on a bitterly negative television advertising campaign against Lamont.
It is the prospect that Lieberman could have a little more going for him than has seemed to be the case through much of the primary fight that has the Lamont campaign working harder than ever today. The narrowing of the polls is likely to bump turnout, perhaps to an unprecedented 45 or 50 percent of the potential primary electorate. The best bet is that this will help Lamont, but the uncertainty about who all these new voters might be – in a state where it is relatively easy for Republicans and independents to reregister as Democrats and participate in the primary – will have everyone on edge until the results are in this evening.
Even if Lamont wins, there is still that bigger "if." Will Democrats in Washington get the message that the war is the issue that gets voters to the polls and that, ultimately, poses a threat to stay-the-course incumbents of both parties? The answer to that question has a lot to do with the size of the margin in Connecticut.
If Lamont wins narrowly – say, by under four points – Lieberman will claim that Democrats are just about evenly divided and plunge into a third-party challenge to the Democratic nominee as the candidate of his newly-created "Connecticut for Lieberman" party.
On the other hand, if Lamont secures a decisive victory with a margin of ten points of more, then the pressure on Lieberman to accept the result will intensify. It will become difficult for the incumbent to hold onto those endorsements from groups such as the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters. And the senator might either forego a fall race or mount a titular campaign that will ultimately be a sad footnote to a lamentable career.
If Lieberman has to hang it up tonight or in the next few days, Democratic Party leaders in Washington are likely – because of the intensity of interest in this contest – to be forced by a suddenly engaged press corps to speak with a measure of clarity about where they stand on the war. Chances are that they will try to firm up a message that on the eve of the primary was still better defined as a "whine" than a muscular challenge to Bush and the neoconservatives.
The prospect that the Connecticut primary could be about more than one state's Senate nomination is what will make tonight a rare moment in American politics. It has been a long time since a Democratic Senate primary shifted the direction of national politics. If this one does, and if it pushes the party in the direction of the anti-war position embraced by most Americans at this point, then this will be a historic day – the day when, after far too long, our politics again became meaningful.
Joe Lieberman, down in the polls and desperate as Tuesday's Connecticut Senate primary approaches, tried on Sunday to remake himself as something he has not been for a very long time: A true-blue Democrat who respects dissent in his own party and the country as a whole.
Accusing his anti-war primary challenger, Ned Lamont, of waging "a distortion campaign against me," the Bush administration's favorite Democratic senator grumbled, "Now I understand that many Democrats in Connecticut disagree with me and are very angry about the war. I don't think there is anything I can say to change your mind about whether we should have gone to war or when we should bring the troops home, and at this point I'm not going to insult you by trying. What I will say is this: I not only respect your right to disagree or question the President, I value it. I was part of the anti-war movement in the late 1960s, so I don't need to be lectured by Ned Lamont about the place of dissent in our democracy."
With the primary just two days away, the senator professed to be shocked, shocked by suggestions that he might be something less than a diehard Democrat.
"The more I have talked to voters in these closing days, the more I am concerned they have been shortchanged in this campaign," said Lieberman. "Instead of hearing an honest debate about the issues that really matter to people, they have been overwhelmed with bogus charges about my Democratic credentials. Instead of having an honest discussion about your future, we're getting negative politics at its worst."
The new Democratic Joe Lieberman is a far cry from the Joe Lieberman who has spent the past four years as the pet Democrat of the conservative Fox News combine -- grinning, nodding and chirping his approval as conservative commentator Sean Hannity has trashed war critics and accused Democrats who challenge the Bush White House of something akin to treason.
Consider this sample from the transcipt of a February 10, 2006, appearance by Lieberman on Hannity's radio program:
HANNITY: I agree with you, and Senator, this is why I am very appreciative of the positions you've taken in the war on terror in the last number of years. And I know you've taken a lot of political heat from it from within your party. You've heard of Howard Dean's comments about you, for crying out loud.
HANNITY: I mean he could barely come out and support you. And, you know, Karl Rove said that Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview, and he said, it doesn't make them unpatriotic, but it makes them wrong.
HANNITY: He believes, profoundly consistently wrong. And I think the latest example of this is, we can kill members of Al Qaeda, but we've got Democrats up in arms over the idea that if Al Qaeda calls into the United States from an outside country, that, boy, we'd better get a court order to listen to them. It's absurd to me.
In the course of the same program last winter, Hannity offered to campaign for Lieberman, telling the neoconservative senator: "If you ever want me to do anything, for you and your re-election, I think we ought to have Conservatives for Lieberman, a big fundraiser in Connecticut, and if I could ever do that, I'd make it the biggest blowout celebration ever."
Lieberman responded by thanking Hannity and telling the Fox personality: "You're a great guy. It would just be fun to be with you."
Perhaps even more amusing than the sudden sympathy for Democrats and dissenters displayed by Lieberman in his pre-primary speech was his newfound anger over the stolen election of 2000.
"I am the only Democrat in America to run against George Bush in a national election twice," said Lieberman, referencing his 2000 Democratic campaign for the vice presidency and his miserable 2004 run for the party's presidential nod. "I even beat him and Dick Cheney once, if all the votes had been counted."
The senator's right, of course. Al Gore would have become the president, and Lieberman the vice president, if all the votes in Florida had been counted in December, 2000, with an eye toward producing a result that reflected the sentiments of the electorate. But what Lieberman failed to mention on Sunday was that he has, for years, been Joey-on-the-spot when George W. Bush has needed an election ally.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, vice presidential candidate Lieberman parted company with his running mate to tell the Wall Street Journal that Gore's populist rhetoric wasn't sincere. Don't take Gore seriously, Lieberman promised, Democrats could be counted on to deliver for corporate America.
During the Florida recount fight of that year, Lieberman told Democrats to back off their challenges to Republican efforts to count votes that were cast late or illegally.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, after Democrats had overwhelmingly rejected Lieberman's candidacy for their party's nomination, the senator traveled to the battleground state of Florida three weeks before the election and told a predominantly Jewish crowd in Delray Beach that criticism of Bush's Middle East policies were "unjustified." "We are dealing with a president who's had a record of strong, consistent support for Israel," Lieberman argued. "You can't say otherwise."
It is not surprising that Joe Lieberman waited until the end of this summer's Connecticut primary campaign to complain about "bogus charges about my Democratic credentials." He's hoping that no one has time to check out the charges before election day. If they do, they will find that there is nothing "bogus" about the Lamont campaign's detailing of Lieberman's penchant for carrying water for Bush and the neoconservatives.
Joe Lieberman is hoping that Connecticut Democrats won't recall his record when the vote on Tuesday.
If they do, he's as doomed as the polls suggest.
The polls show Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is falling far behind anti-war challenger Ned Lamont as the state's August 8 Democratic primary approaches.
But it's not all bad news for the embattled senator. At least Tom DeLay's rooting for him.
The former House majority leader from Texas is a Republican who may not agree with the Bush White House's favorite Democrat on every issue but who thinks the Senator is right-on when it comes to foreign policy.
"[Lieberman's] very good on the war," DeLay said during an interview this week on the Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" program.
With the Connecticut primary, in which Iraq War-enthusiast Lieberman trails war-critic Lamont by 13 points in the latest poll, just days away, the incumbent's neoconservative allies are rushing to his defense.
Lieberman's latest campaign contribution list features a $500 donation from Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, a publication so Pravda-like in its cheerleading for the Iraq imbroglio – and for an attack on Iran -- that Vice President Dick Cheney has stacks of each new edition delivered to the White House for distribution to the staff.
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter's defending Lieberman, as well, going on at some length during an interview with Fox's Neal Cavuto to explain how much she admires the senator and suggesting that, instead of fighting for the Democratic nomination in Connecticut, Lieberman ought to switch parties. "I think he should come all the way and become a Republican," argues Coulter, who says of Lieberman and the GOP: "at least he'd fit in with the party."
Even though it comes from Coulter, that's not entirely crazy talk. In February of this year, Connecticut Republican Congressman Chris Shays told editors of the Stamford Advocate newspaper that he would be voting for Lieberman this year and urged other Republicans to do the same. The Hartford Courant reported on February 28 that "GOP officials have discussed cross-endorsing Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman this fall."
The Courant story, which broke before a cross-endorsement deal could be brokered, squelched it for the time being. "One GOP operative who was aware of the discussions said premature public disclosure of the possible cross-endorsement probably would kill the idea. That seems to be case," the paper observed last winter.
But with Lamont pulling ahead in the polls, and with the Lieberman's backers circulating petitions to run him as an independent if he loses the Democratic nod, some Connecticut Republicans have again been discussing the prospect that a defeated Lieberman might find a new political home on the GOP line. The campaign of the endorsed Republican candidate for the Connecticut Senate seat, former legislator Alan Schlesinger, has been rocked by charges that he may have a serious gambling problem. Connecticut's Republican Governor Jodi Rell suggested in July that Schlesinger might want to consider quitting the race. Schlesinger stayed in for the time being. But all bets could be off if Lieberman – a Senate supporter the Bush White House does not want to lose -- suddenly becomes available.
Who is the most outspoken and through-provoking Senate critic of the Bush administration's misguided foreign policies?
Hint: The boldest opposition voice is not that of a Democrat.
Over the course of the past week, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a maverick conservative Republican from Nebraska, has scored the administration for its misguided approaches in language far wiser and bolder than the empty stream of rhetoric that continues to pass the lips of his Democratic colleagues.
Here's Hagel on Iraq: "[The occupation's] an absolute replay of Vietnam." The Vietnam veteran deplored the fact that U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq had become "easy targets" in a country that he told the Omaha World Herald had descended into "absolute anarchy." Hagel condemned the decision of the Bush administration and its rubberstamping Pentagon to suspend military rotations and add new troops in Iraq -- increasing the size of the occupation force from 130,000 to 135,000. "That isn't going to do any good. It's going to have a worse effect," argues Hagel. "They're destroying the United States Army."
More significantly, here's Hagel on the failure of the United States to use its influence with Israel to end the killing of innocent Lebanese men, women and children and the destruction of that country's civilian infrastructure: "How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend -- the country and people of Lebanon -- is going to enhance America's image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East? The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now," Hagel said on the Senate floor. Delivering the message that should be coming from the opposition party, the senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared: "President Bush must call for an immediate cease fire. This madness must stop."
Most significantly of all, here's Hagel making the connection between the occupation of Iraq and the broader Middle East crisis: "America is bogged down in Iraq, and this is limiting our diplomatic and military options." Because the Bush administration deals in unreasonable "absolutes" when it approaches disputes in the region, the senator said, the United States in no longer seen as the "wellspring of consensus" that might be able to develop multi-national support for peace initiatives.
Finally, here's Hagel on what the U.S. should be doing in the Middle East: "We know that without engaged and active American leadership, the world is more dangerous," explains the senator, who has been talked about as a possible 2008 presidential contender. So, he says, the U.S. must engage. Instead of Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's hands-off approach, Hagel argues, U.S. diplomats should be working with Arab governments, including governments that leaders in Washington may not like. Rejecting Bush's ranting about Syria and Iran, Hagel says the U.S. should be in direct negotiations with those countries. The senator characterized the administration's decision to pull the U.S. ambassador out of Damascus as "mindless." Paraphrasing the advice of a retired senior U.S. intelligence officer, Hagel said, "Even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. We ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence."
To those who would suggest that the U.S. must choose between supporting Israel and engaging with its Arab neighbors, even those neighbors that Washington may consider to be "bad guys," Hagel offered one of the sanest statements heard on the floor of the Senate in the whole debate over the Middle East crisis: "Our relationship with Israel is special and historic," the Nebraskan said. "But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice."
Hagel is far from a perfect player. He doesn't have all the answers. He's not even proposing bold responses to the current crisis, and not all that he suggests is wise or responsible. The senator's simply a throwback to the old bipartisan consensus that said diplomacy and common sense ought to guide U.S. foreign policy, as opposed to messianic ranting and kneejerk reaction. Bush and his neoconservative colleagues are so out of touch with global realities and traditional American values with regard to diplomacy that they don't even understand where Hagel is coming from. Unfortunately, the Democrats are so lacking in spine and vision that, while they may recognize that Hagel is right about the failures and false choices that are the byproducts of this president's policies, they lack the guts to borrow enough pages from Republican senator's playbook to make themselves an effective opposition party.
From the Baby Steps Department where Democratic leaders plot policy comes a letter to President Bush signed by the opposition party's Congressional leadership, as well as a number of House and Senate Democrats who have been associated with national security and intelligence issues.
The letter from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and their partisan compatriots identifies the crisis of the moment: "Iraq has exploded in violence. Some 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June, and sectarian and insurgent violence continues to claim American and Iraqi lives at an alarming rate. In the face of this onslaught, one can only conclude that the Baghdad security plan you announced five weeks ago is in great jeopardy."
The letter identifies the broader crisis: "U.S. troops and taxpayers continue to pay a high price as your Administration searches for a policy. Over 2,500 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice and over 18,000 others have been wounded. The Iraq war has also strained our military and constrained our ability to deal with other challenges. Readiness levels for the Army are at lows not seen since Vietnam, as virtually no active Army non-deployed combat brigade is prepared to perform its wartime missions."
The letter identifies the source of the crisis: "Far from implementing a comprehensive ‘Strategy for Victory' as you promised months ago, your Administration's strategy appears to be one of trying to avoid defeat."
The only thing that is lacking is a proper response to the crisis.
While the letter declares the belief of its signers "that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq should begin before the end of 2006," it does not propose anything akin to an exit strategy.
In effect, the letter is an embrace by key House Democrats -- Pelosi; Minority Whip Steny Hoyer; Ike Skelton, the ranking minority member of the House Armed Services Committee; Tom Lantos, the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee; Jane Harman, the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee; and John Murtha, the ranking minority member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee -- of the a proposal by Senators Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, that was voted down by the Republican-controlled Senate in June.
The vague Reed-Levin measure was a soft alternative to a proposal by Senators Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, and John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, to establish a timeline for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Most Senate Democrats backed Reed-Levin -- although, notably, Senator John Lieberman, who faces a stiff primary challenge next Tuesday from anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont, did not. Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee was the sole Republican backer of the proposal.
Most Senate Democrats refused to back the Feingold-Kerry proposal, [The 13 Democrats who did take a clear anti-war stance were the sponsors and Senators Dan Araka and Dan Inouye of Hawaii, Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.]
So where does this new letter leave the Democrats. Not far from where they were in June, before all hell broke loose in Baghdad. House Democratic leaders are a little more united than they were early in the summer -- with former cheerleaders for the war such as Harman and Lantos, both of whom faced California Democratic primary challenges to their Bush-friendly stances, moving in a more clearly skeptical direction regarding the administration's misguided foreign policies.
That's progress. But the Democratic Party has yet to embrace the position taken by the overwhelming majority of Americans. A July Gallup poll found that roughly 2 in 3 Americans want the U.S. to exit Iraq. [Significantly, 31 percent wanted the exodus to begin immediately.]
While the new letter to Bush was intended to suggest that Democrats are united, the fact is that the party leadership has not yet figured out how to talk about Iraq in a meaningful way. If they ever do, it will most likely be because of a push from the party's grassroots. That's why the Lieberman-Lamont contest in Connecticut is such a big deal. The rejection of Lieberman by Democratic primary voters would not merely signal grassroots anger with one war-backing senator, it would signal that Democrats want their party to start making a serious appeal to the great majority of voters who want out of Iraq.