Connecticut May Be a 2008 Preview
Sunday, August 13, 2006
American politics this year has been running on two divergent tracks. The first is intensified partisan combat in advance of a critical midterm election. The second is growing disaffection among many voters with a national capital seen as stalemated by polarization and distrust between the two political parties.
That makes the coming campaign between antiwar Democrat Ned Lamont and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who lost last week's primary and is now running in the general election as an independent, an intriguing laboratory for what might emerge in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Will Lieberman's campaign prove to be a forerunner for a message of civility and bipartisanship that emerges nationally in 2008, or simply be remembered as an obsolete refrain from a politician living in an idealized past and that serves only to deepen partisan divisions?
The Lieberman-Lamont primary became the latest stage for the politics of anger that has dominated since President Bush took office after the disputed election of 2000. Lieberman hopes to make the general election a template for civility in politics and a return to some measure of bipartisan cooperation in Washington.
The war in Iraq and the architecture of Republican electoral victories in 2002 and 2004 have persuaded many strategists in both parties that the key to victory is to maximize support of the most ideological of their followers, rather than appealing to less-partisan swing voters.
Still, long before the Connecticut Senate race, prospective 2008 candidates, including the two early front-runners for their parties' nominations, have been examining the question of whether the public is ready to turn away from the partisan style of politics that has dominated the Bush presidency.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), despite his recent efforts to make himself more attractive to party conservatives and Bush loyalists, has asked more than once whether voters in 2008 will be looking for a candidate with the attributes he has long exhibited: independence and a willingness to work across party lines.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a polarizing figure by any measure, nonetheless has spent much of her six years in the Senate developing a record of cooperation with Republican senators that she could take to the voters in 2008, should she decide to run for president.
At the same time, veteran Republican strategist Doug Bailey, Carter administration veterans Hamilton Jordan and Gerald Rafshoon and former independent governor Angus King of Maine, among others, have launched a Web-based organization called Unity08. They are urging Americans turned off by partisan combat to help break the current model by using online voting to nominate a bipartisan ticket next year as an alternative to the two major party nominees.
Those stirrings lead directly back to Connecticut's Senate race. Political strategists, however, say Lieberman may be an imperfect vehicle for testing this message. He is a three-term incumbent, a Washington insider and an establishment politician of the first rank -- in short, hardly the kind of person to argue that he can change the tone in Washington.
"Whenever there is disillusionment with Washington, there is interest or potential appeal for a third force in politics -- an outsider," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "The problem with Lieberman is he represents the establishment when he will be running as an independent."
Beyond that, the opening stage of his campaign has delivered a decidedly mixed message. Lieberman's first post-primary television ad promises an era of "unity and purpose." His first post-primary campaign appearance featured a slashing attack on Lamont in which he claimed that success by his rival in November would be "taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England."