Some random thoughts in the closing days:
First, is there a better expression of what I called “checklist liberalism” than Lieberman’s I-gave-at-the-office answer to George Stephanopoulos this morning, complete with the Rumsfeldian question-answer format?:
Lieberman: “Did I keep in touch with Democrats? You bet I did….I have the support of most of the key inner constituencies, advocacy groups within the Democratic Party : the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, Defenders of Wildlife, Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, Planned Parenthood PAC. They wouldn’t support me if I lost touch with them.”
Second, I want to comment on some bits of Dan Balz’s article, billed on the Washington Post website as “What A Lieberman Loss Would Mean.” Balz’s unsurprising argument is that if Lieberman loses, it will increase the importance of the Iraq War in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and advantage candidates like Al Gore whose opposition has been stronger.
In contrast, Balz says, “many party moderates say they see worrisome parallels to what happened to the Democrats during Vietnam, when they opposed an unpopular war but paid a price politically for years after because of a perception the party was too dovish on national security.
“‘Candidates know they cannot appease [antiwar] activists if they are going to run winning national campaigns,’ said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.”
Two comments on this: First, the 2008 primaries are seventeen months away. Balz projects a straight line from the way the issue breaks today to that point. And seems to take it for granted that we’ll still be embroiled in Iraq. But consider that at the time of the 2004 primaries, the war was less than one year old! By the time of the first primary votes in 2008, it will be almost five years of war. We’re now in the fourth year of the war; does anyone seriously think that by the sixth, absent some enormous change, that “antiwar activists” won’t be the vast majority of people? If the issue - the war - remains unchanged, the politics of it cannot remain unchanged.
This is why I’ve never been worried in the past about the “split” on Iraq among Democrats. I thought that by the time we got within sight of the 2008 primaries, either something dramatic would have happened to change things, or it would become completely obvious to everyone that withdrawal on a timetable was the only option. With David Broder and Tom Friedman now in the “cut and run” camp, with Senator Clinton standing up to Rumsfeld, that moment has almost come. And while the Lamont challenge may accelerate it somewhat among the more cautious politicians, it’s the reality, the fact that we are now in the middle of someone else’s civil war, that is driving everyone else to that consensus.
Also, I’m really tired of the Vietnam/Democrats analogy, in which the entire political history of Vietnam is reduced to McGovern’s loss in 1972. The real reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because - let’s not be afraid to admit it -- Democrats started that war. Opposition to the war didn’t unify or define the party, it divided it. Nixon won the 1968 election because Humphrey was associated with the war, couldn’t split with LBJ, and Nixon promised - dishonestly -- to end it. The national security gap for Democrats first appeared in polls in 1967-68, because LBJ was held responsible for the war itself, not because they were associated with antiwar activists. (See this paper from the Truman Project for more.) And in the election after 1972, the 75+ Democrats who won congressional seats were overwhelmingly anti-war, a transforming fresh spirit in politics that dominated Congress for the next two decades. We can only hope that a new class of legislators elected on a wave of revulsion at the war and at corruption will be as skilled and resilient.
Third, I’ve been predicting for weeks that the Lieberman independent bid would amount to nothing, and that seems to now be the conventional wisdom, especially after Senator Frank Lautenberg suggested that if he did not come within 10 points of Lamont, he should drop the Party of One bid.
Politicians can be superficially supportive but also cruelly contemptuous toward colleagues who can’t take care of their own business. I think that some of the establishment figures have to be noticing that not only did Lieberman put himself in this situation, but he did absolutely nothing, at any point, to get himself out of it. From attacking Lamont, acting peevish and entitled, declaring the independent bid, refusing to say anything that would show any difference between his view of Iraq and Bush’s (even with George Stephanopoulos this morning he was mouthing the WH line that the only threat to a unified, stable Iraq was “the terrorists”), to finally trying a clumsy imitation of Lamont’s enthusiastic rallies, the only result of which was that the face of his campaign for a day was a loudmouth DC lobbyist who looked like an understudy for the “Billionaires for Bush” comedy troupe, Lieberman didn’t make one right move in six months. He doesn’t even seem to realize that if he denounces his opponent for voting with Republicans and calls him “center-right,” he can’t credibly also say, “That’s something that separates me from my opponent - I don’t hate Republicans.”
I was going to end this post with some attempt to figure out why it happened, but all explanation - such as that he doesn’t quite understand how politics has changed since the 1990s - seems inadequate to the magnitude of the flame-out. I think it’s possible that after the primary, unleashed from the obligation of being a checklist Democrat, Lieberman may emerge as a very, very conservative figure, one of those real neoconservatives (in the older sense of the word) whose main politics is to obsess over and recoil at what they see as the excesses of the left. Michael Barone is a good example of such a figure, and that way madness lies. I’m just speculating, but if that does occur, we’ll understand why he couldn’t run a plausible Democratic campaign in 2006: he couldn’t bring himself to.