Most Democrats were frustrated last December when one of the most prominent members of their party’s Senate caucus, Joe Lieberman, condemned critics of the Bush Administration’s mishandling of the war in Iraq by declaring, “It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge he’ll be Commander in Chief for three more years. We undermine the President’s credibility at our nation’s peril.” One Democrat, Connecticut businessman Ned Lamont, decided that Lieberman’s comments were the last straw, and when he recognized that no other antiwar candidate was going to challenge the Senator in the Connecticut primary, he decided to make the run. That’s usually the recipe for a principled, if soon-to-be-forgotten, losing campaign. But Lamont did not lose. And Democratic Party leaders and strategists would be wise to recognize that the results from Connecticut are about more than one state and one senator.
Make no mistake, Lamont’s victory was a breakthrough win for the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party. With a candidate who had no name recognition in January, a grassroots revolt by the great mass of antiwar Democrats displaced an eighteen-year incumbent Senator who in 2000 was the party’s nominee for Vice President and who in 2004 campaigned for the party’s presidential nomination. How did Lamont do it? By putting the war in perspective. He did not simply oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq; he asked voters to think about the domestic costs of diverting $250 million a day from the federal Treasury into a distant quagmire and the deep pockets of military contractors. Democratic leaders, who have struggled to develop a coherent alternative to the foreign and domestic policies of the Bush Administration, need to understand that Lamont’s recognition of the linkages between a misguided war and unmet domestic needs gave his candidacy the focus, the authority and the broad appeal that Democrats have lacked in recent campaign cycles.
How should Democratic leaders and strategists respond to the Lamont victory? First off, they need to unite their party behind its chosen candidate in Connecticut. Democratic senators, starting with Chris Dodd, Connecticut’s senior Senator and a prospective 2008 presidential contender, must throw their full energy and considerable influence behind the candidate chosen by Democratic voters in order to avert–or, failing that, defeat–the sore-loser candidacy Lieberman hopes to run on a third-party line against Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger. Supporting Lamont matters in Connecticut, but it also matters nationally. As New York Senator Hillary Clinton recognized in July, when Lieberman first started talking about making a renegade run, anyone who intends to lead the Democratic Party in 2008 had better be aggressively backing its candidates in 2006. That demands more than just touching tarmac in Connecticut for a pre-election Lamont rally; Democratic leaders have to explain to labor, prochoice and environmental groups, as well as to campaign donors, that a party that wants to keep its antiwar base energized needs to support antiwar candidates who win Democratic nominations.
But ultimately, Democratic leaders in Washington and around the country don’t just owe something to Lamont as their nominee. They owe something to their party and their country. The message that prevailed in Connecticut on August 8 is a message that can win for Democrats nationwide in November. In claiming his victory, Lamont mocked the empty rhetoric of President Bush and Senator Lieberman by declaring: “Stay the course–that’s not a winning strategy in Iraq, and it’s not a winning strategy for America.” That’s a better campaign slogan than anyone at the Democratic National Committee or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has come up with this year. Just as the party must embrace Ned Lamont, it must embrace his message.