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Lieberman's Real Problem

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I am about to become a traitor to my class. Among my estimable colleagues in the Washington commentariat, the idea that Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is facing a serious challenge from a fellow Democrat over Lieberman's support for the Iraq war seems to evoke incredulity and exasperation. On the op-ed pages of leading newspapers, we read that Lieberman is "the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men" (that's from the New York Times' David Brooks), a judgment that cannot credibly be disputed -- though if ever a road to hell was paved with good intentions, it would start with the anti-Saddam Hussein interventionism of pro-democracy advocates and end in downtown Baghdad today.

My colleagues also finger those crazy lefty bloggers as the culprits behind the drive to purge Lieberman from Democratic ranks. (The New Republic's Jonathan Chait recently wrote that in the Los Angeles Times.) They see a self-destructive urge for party purification sweeping over Democratic liberals, to the detriment of Democratic prospects.

Lieberman himself certainly does. My Post colleague Ruth Marcus recently spent some time on the campaign trail with Lieberman and reported on a talk he gave in Danbury. "Are the extremes going to dominate?" Lieberman asked. "Do you have to be 100 percent in agreement with an elected official or it's not good enough?"

Well. I don't blog; I columnize. But count me with the bloggers on this one. No great mystery enshrouds the challenge to Lieberman, nor is the campaign of his challenger, Ned Lamont, a jihad of crazed nit-pickers. Lieberman has simply and rightly been caught up in the fundamental dynamics of Politics 2006, in which Democrats are doing their damnedest to unseat all the president's enablers in this year's elections. As well, Lieberman's broader politics are at odds with those of his fellow Northeastern Democrats. He is not being opposed because he doesn't reflect the views of his Democratic constituents 100 percent of the time. He is being opposed because he leads causes many of them find repugnant.

As early as December 2001 Lieberman signed a letter to President Bush asking him to make Saddam Hussein's Iraq our next stop in the war against terrorism. As recently as last month, he opposed two Democratic resolutions to scale back our involvement in the war. And just last week Lieberman characterized the progress of the war as "a lot better" than it was a year ago, adding, "They're on the way to building a free and independent Iraq."

So, why the surprise if Connecticut voters, listening to Lieberman and looking at his record, conclude that they cannot trust his judgment on the single most important issue of the day? That's not mandating purity; it's opting for a senator who pays more attention to the war on the ground than to the war in his head.

Indeed, across Connecticut and neighboring states, Republican legislators whose support for the war has been less avid than Lieberman's are in trouble this year precisely because they've allowed Bush (even if only by virtue of their support for Republican control of Congress) to press on with the war. Connecticut's three Republican House members are scrambling for their political lives for fundamentally the same reasons that Lieberman is. In neighboring Rhode Island, Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee -- the most anti-Bush, antiwar Republican in the Senate -- may well be defeated because to be a Bush-era Republican of any stripe in the Northeast these days is a formula for political oblivion.

Of all Northeastern senators, moreover, Chafee is the one whose political profile most closely matches Lieberman's. Over the past three years, Chafee has run up a 65 percent voting record on the scorecard of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Lieberman's score is 75 percent. The six other Democrats from the nearest states -- Jack Reed from Rhode Island, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton from New York, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry from Massachusetts, Patrick Leahy from Vermont -- averaged 97 percent during those three years. Lieberman's ADA rating of 80 percent last year tied Florida's Bill Nelson for the second-lowest among Senate Democrats.

The issue here isn't that Lieberman is not 100 percent. It's that his positions -- not just on foreign policy but on trade, Social Security and other key issues -- are often out of sync with those of Democrats in his part of the country. To expect his region's voters to dump the area's moderate Republicans but back Lieberman is to expect that they will adopt a double standard in this year's elections.

Lieberman's ultimate problem isn't fanatical bloggers, any more than Lyndon Johnson's was crazy, antiwar Democrats. His problem is that Bush, and the war that both he and Bush have championed, is speeding the ongoing realignment of the Northeast. His problem, dear colleagues, is Connecticut.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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