Can we please put to rest the idea that Ned Lamont’s challenge to Senator Lieberman is a product of, or a wholly-owned subsidiary of, that thing called “the netroots.” (Without, in so doing, disparaging or minimizing the netroots themselves.)
Yes, a lot of nationally prominent liberal bloggers are enthusiastic about the Lamont challenge. They’ve presumably helped raise some money (the thing he needs least, but the only symbolic gesture of support available to most people outside the state) and perhaps have generated some volunteers, including a number of bloggers themselves, notably Jane Hamsher. And a number of fabulous Connecticut-based blogs are central to the internal and external communications around the Lamont campaign. But that’s true of every successful campaign today, left, right and center, and in either major party. (The centrist Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri, for example, Claire McCaskill, is backed by almost as impressive a group of Show-Me-State blogs as Lamont is by Nutmeg blogs.)
The plausibility of the Lamont campaign is attributable to two major things, none of which have anything to do with Markos Moulitsas or his loyal minions:
1. Decades of statewide progressive organizing in the state. Lamont’s campaign manager is no blogger, but Tom Swan, who left his job as head of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) to run the campaign. According to one of the Connecticut blogs I mentioned above, much of the CCAG staff has also quit or taken a leave to help Lamont. CCAG got its start before even Al Gore had heard of the Internet, in the same year that Lieberman won his first primary - 1970 - and from the same impulses that created the reformist/anti-war Caucus of Connecticut Democrats in which Lieberman was active.
CCAG has had its ups and downs over the decades, but it is one of a very few multi-issue progressive groups of that era to have survived. A related group, the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP) was very successful at getting progressives elected to the state legislature, many of whom are still there. CCAG has had a very successful last couple of years, most notably in winning passage of the state’s public financing law for campaigns, the first such “clean money” law to be passed through a legislature rather than by voter initiative. It takes a lot of skill and political savvy to get a legislature to back a proposal with low political salience that most politicians view as a threat. (That is, they would like to bury it and expect they can get away with it.) The Lamont campaign is coming off the energy and lessons learned of that victory.
You could imagine a challenge like Lamont’s emerging without the “netroots,” although they certainly drive a lot of the enthusiasm. You couldn’t imagine it without politically savvy, experienced organizers like Swan, with a base in a long-term, multi-issue progressive coalition that has allies and experience and understands the state. And anyone thinking about how to build structures and parties that can win elections against Republicans needs to understand this as well.
2. The fact that Lieberman has run, so far, the second most embarrassingly bad campaign of the year. (The worst campaign’s entire staff just quit, so there may be an opening to move up.) The fact is that there’s been a lot of latent discontent with Lieberman in the state at least since his speech about Monica Lewinsky, but as recently as a few months ago, his approval rating among Democrats was solidly in the low 70’s, indistinguishable from his support among Independents and Republicans. (This is an important point, by the way: A good portion of Republicans and Independents in Connecticut are more liberal than the average registered Democrat, and his support among those groups could prove just as soft as his Democratic support.) Lieberman could easily have restored his bond with Connecticut Democrats, or at least enough to be sure of winning a primary. I could have written that speech or that ad, and I would have done it, too, before he said “we criticize our commander-in-chief at our own peril.” It would involve a much stronger condemnation of Bush’s conduct of the war, a heartfelt acknowledgement of respect for opponents of the war and for the legitimacy of dissent, and a message that, wherever anyone stood in 2003, now we have a crisis on the ground in Iraq and have to work together - and with Republicans -- to get it right and get out. (If he couldn’t in good conscience say those things, then he’s got bigger problems.) The war is not the only issue driving opposition to Lieberman, of course, but it is the great question of our time and if he could defuse it somewhat as an issue, the opposition doesn’t have that much to work with.
Instead, for whatever reason, he chose to act petulant about the fact that anyone would oppose him at all, which is not the right response for a democrat, much less a Democrat; produce a series of comically inept ads, and shrink himself into a sort of suburban-mensch version of Al D’Amato : “I saved 3,000 jobs at Electric Boat in Groton.” “I voted for the energy bill because we got $800 million for energy conservation in Connecticut.” (Large forces have been unleashed in our politics, and a national figure like Lieberman should be seen as confronting those questions, not selling out for petty earmarks.) And finally, by taking out the “insurance policy” of running under a party named after himself, he highlighted every one of his own negatives and virtually ensured his defeat in the primary, with a very good chance that the independent candidacy will fizzle as well.
So let’s credit the netroots for what they do well - generate enthusiasm, force the big questions onto the agenda, generate a new definition of what it means to be a Democrat. But by themselves they can’t create a viable candidacy or bring down a popular three-term incumbent. Only organizing and the incumbent’s own mistakes can do that.