A Preview For November
Some events are so important that the battle to interpret their meaning begins even before they happen. So it is with today's Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut.
Most of the commentary is premised on the idea that antiwar businessman Ned Lamont will defeat Lieberman, one of Congress's strongest supporters of the Iraq war. This speculation may be premature for reasons we'll get to. But the two lines of argument hardening into place tell us a great deal about what we'll be debating in this fall's campaign.
Republican supporters of Bush and the war are claiming that a Lamont victory would signal a dovish takeover of the Democratic Party by activists organized by anti-Bush bloggers -- and would show that there is no room left in Democratic ranks for moderates.
The most over-the-top version of this argument came from William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "What drives so many Democrats crazy about Lieberman is not simply his support for the Iraq war," Kristol wrote. "It's that he's unashamedly pro-American."
This charge of extremism enrages Democrats, including many Lieberman supporters. It's absurd, they say, to attribute Lamont's rise primarily to bloggers who were his prime supporters three months ago, when he registered less than 20 percent in the polls. Something has happened since then that goes well beyond the blogosphere.
In this light, the effort to play the anti-American card can be seen as a sign of the frustration felt by the architects of a war that no longer enjoys popular support and the desperation of those who realize how pervasive the anti-Bush mood has become.
The battle of interpretations has raged within the Lieberman campaign itself. For months, Lieberman tried to push the war aside, insisting that the election should not be decided by a "single issue." He focused on classic incumbent arguments about his role in bringing jobs to Connecticut, and on criticisms of Lamont.
But on Sunday night -- pressed by campaign advisers to speak directly to Democratic anger at the president -- Lieberman finally threw in his lot with the anti-Bush camp. He offered a "closing argument" that ticked off eight issues on which he had battled the administration. He defended dissenters opposed to the war whom he had once seemed to criticize and insisted that he "clearly disagreed with and criticized the president" on many aspects of Bush's Iraq policy.
The "biggest lie being told about me by the other side," Lieberman declared, is "the false charge that I am George Bush's best friend and enabler." Lieberman's closing speech reflected a clear recognition that he had no chance of surviving as long as voters associated him with Bush.
The embattled incumbent received a modest piece of good news yesterday when the Quinnipiac University poll, whose survey four days earlier showed him trailing Lamont by 13 percentage points, found the margin cut to 6 points. Although Lieberman's own friends were pessimistic (and, truthfully, polling for a summer primary is notoriously difficult), it's at least conceivable that Lieberman's closing declaration of independence might be just enough to push him over the top.
There is, in any event, a major flaw in the claim that Lieberman's troubles reflect an end to the role of moderates in the Democratic Party: Lieberman is the one prominent moderate to receive serious opposition in this year's primaries. As Robert L. Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America's Future noted, antiwar Democrats limited their challenge to one of the most pro-Bush Democrats in one of the most Democratic states in the country. Moderate Democrats in Republican-leaning states were left largely undisturbed.
Moreover, opposition to the war in Iraq and to Bush has spread well beyond the left. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Lieberman leads Lamont among Democrats who called themselves moderate or conservative by only 53 percent to 43 percent. If Lieberman loses, it will be primarily because of defections in the disaffected center.
There will be a way to test the competing interpretations of the Lieberman-Lamont contest. Were Lieberman to be defeated, Republicans would mourn his loss as a blow to moderates and urge him to run this fall as an independent. But if petrified Republican candidates around the country accelerate their efforts to add to the distance they've already built between themselves and Bush, you'll know that they know what Connecticut's voters were really saying.
And if Lieberman miraculously survives, it will be because he finally realized that the last thing an incumbent wants to be this year is George Bush's best friend and enabler.