A Primary Lesson for Lieberman

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Consider the uncanny similarity between Sen. Joe Lieberman's campaign for reelection in Connecticut last weekend and a certain political weekend in New York 26 years ago.

In Connecticut, four Senate Democrats pleaded with the party's rank and file to support Lieberman in the state's Aug. 8 primary against liberal challenger Ned Lamont. One of them, Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, was unabashed in describing Lieberman as "a hero of mine and someone who has inspired me."

On Sept. 6, 1980, a group of nine Republican senators descended on New York state to help Sen. Jacob Javits, the liberal Republican running in a primary against a conservative named Alfonse D'Amato. Among them was Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, who called Javits "an example to us, our counselor, our father confessor."

The comparison is flattering to Lieberman, given Javits's stature in the Senate, but it's not reassuring. D'Amato defeated Javits in that primary and went on to serve 18 years in the Senate.

Ideologically based primary challenges to important incumbents almost always signal major changes in the political winds. That's as true of Lamont's strong campaign against Lieberman as it was of D'Amato's victory, following as it did the primary defeats of two other liberal Republican senators -- Clifford Case of New Jersey in 1978 and Thomas Kuchel of California 10 years earlier -- at the hands of conservatives.

The upstarts who beat Case and Kuchel later lost the fall elections. But their cleansing of progressives from Republican ranks was part of a long conservative march that culminated in Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory and the hold that conservatives now have on the elected branches of the federal government.

The opposition to Lieberman is motivated by an effort to reverse the trend to the right. It's true that Lamont's campaign has been energized by widespread opposition to the Iraq war and the fact that Lieberman has been one of the most loyal Democratic defenders of President Bush's Middle East policies.

But Lieberman's troubles are, even more, about a new aggressiveness in the Democratic Party called forth by disgust with the Bush presidency -- an energy comparable to the vigor that a loathing for liberalism brought to the Republican right in the 1970s and '80s.

Like the earlier generation of conservatives, today's Democratic activists are impatient with accommodating the powers that be. They demand that Democrats stop trying to chase a "center" that has veered ever rightward since 1980. Instead, they want to haul that center back to more progressive terrain. That's why so much of the political energy in Connecticut seems to be with Lamont.

Lieberman's core problem was not even his support for the Iraq war. It was his eagerness to challenge the legitimacy of fellow Democrats who have called attention to the administration's mistakes. Lieberman, confident of Democratic support, seemed to crave the affection of Republicans most of all.

The statement that did more than anything to power this primary challenge was a comment Lieberman made in December.

"It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years," Lieberman said, "and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril." The implication that there is something wrong with criticizing George W. Bush is unacceptable to most Democrats, who believe that Bush himself has done the most to undermine his own credibility.

And so, just as political logic pointed to the earlier downfalls of Javits, Case and Kuchel, so does political logic suggest a gloomy outlook for Lieberman.

Elections, however, are about more than logic and historical trends. If Lieberman survives this primary, it will be thanks to voters who would gladly have cast a protest ballot against him but never really wanted him to lose. Such voters -- and, yes, I identify with them -- are frustrated with Lieberman's accommodationism but like and respect him and hope he might learn something from Lamont's challenge.

A Lieberman loss next week could also create distracting problems for Democrats. Lieberman has said he would run as an independent if he lost the primary. This would divert national attention from the Democrats' central goal of making this fall's elections a referendum on Bush and the Republican Congress.

As for this primary, the lesson already is clear: A Democratic Party that has been on defense since the 1980s desperately wants to go on offense. Lamont understands that. If Lieberman is to survive this round, he needs to make clear between now and next Tuesday that he's gotten the message.


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