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.