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Lieberman Vs. the Democrats

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman is as seasoned a pol as anyone can find, but he seems to have forgotten the very purpose of elections.

In a remarkable interview he recently gave to The Post's David S. Broder [op-ed, June 18], the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee sounded appalled that his fellow Democrats might, in his state's upcoming August primary, reject his reelection bid because he doesn't think his party should criticize the president on the conduct of the Iraq war. (By most indications, his primary opponent, businessman Ned Lamont, is mounting a strong challenge.)

"I know I'm taking a position that is not popular within the party," Lieberman told Broder, "but that is a challenge for the party -- whether it will accept diversity of opinion or is on a kind of crusade or jihad of its own to have everybody toe the line. No successful political party has ever done that."

That's a rather stunning assertion. If parties were based on the acceptance of diversity of opinion on the most important issues of the day, they would lack the definition to be parties at all. And the conduct and duration of our involvement in Iraq is, by the measure of every single poll, the No. 1 issue in the minds of the American people -- a majority of whom believe that the Bush administration has botched the war about as badly as a war can be botched.

Now, maybe I've had this backward all my life, but I thought that elections were held to enable voters to choose between candidates espousing different points of view on the most important issues. Lieberman seems to believe that elections exist to enable voters not to choose -- indeed, to "accept diversity of opinion." And that if voters have the temerity to go ahead and choose anyway, they have crossed the line between party and sect in their zeal "to have everybody toe the line."

Toe the line? On Iraq? The Democrats? What line would that be? Last week, when the Republican leadership in the House brought forth a resolution that rejected setting a timetable for withdrawing troops and that called the war an integral part of the fight against global terrorism, 42 Democrats voted yes and 149 Democrats voted no. This week two groups of Democratic senators have introduced rival resolutions on Iraq policy in the Senate: one calling for the withdrawal of most ground troops by July 1, 2007, and the other calling on the president to begin phased redeployment of troops by the end of this year.

Whatever the Democrats' flaws, moving in lock step on Iraq isn't one of them. Indeed, the Republicans seem to have concluded that the uniformity of their own message on Iraq -- unpopular though it may be -- plays better than the Democrats' cacophony.

Lieberman's problem is not that he faces expulsion from a sect but that he has chosen to stand outside what remains a big, messy tent of a party. Moreover, he seems to have reversed the roles that the two parties play when it comes to Iraq.

By criticizing the president on the war, he has said, the Democrats are playing partisan politics. His opponent, Lieberman told Broder, criticized him for breaking "Democratic unity. . . . Well, dammit, I wasn't thinking about Democratic unity. It was a moment to put the national interest above partisan interest."

How's that again? To criticize Bush on the war is partisan, while refusing to criticize Bush on the war affirms the national interest? That's taking a rather partisan -- a pro-Bush partisan -- view of the national interest. Lieberman is surely right that one party has exploited the war for partisan gain, but that party is the GOP. From forcing through a resolution authorizing the war on the eve of the 2002 elections to last week's vote in the House, the Republicans have continually used the war to play gotcha with any Democrats from swing states or districts with the guts to dissent from the administration's non-reality-based view of the conflict.

In talking with Broder, Lieberman also expressed a kind of wry nostalgia for the pre-primary days when political bosses could assemble slates of candidates essentially by themselves. But the last stand of the bosses came in 1968, when machine-appointed delegates to the Democratic National Convention nominated Hubert Humphrey for president even though the voters in those states that had held primaries had favored the anti-Vietnam War candidacies of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Thereafter, delegates in every state were selected in primaries and caucuses, as party leaders concluded that voters would demand -- and even deserved -- a say on issues as fundamental as Vietnam. To Joe Lieberman's apparent dismay, Iraq is just such an issue, and the voters of his state are just irresponsible enough to judge him on it.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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