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Why Can"t Lieberman Be Challenged In a Primary?

Sam Rosenfeld points out accurately that I have warned against the temptation of the idea that congressional Democrats should emulate the Republican machine in enforcing rigid party discipline on all issues. But that doesn"t mean I don"t think there are any lines that should be enforced. There are lines. And so I agree that it"s right that Nancy Pelosi should put the screws to Rep. Edolphus Towns for skipping the vote on the budget bill, which was a party vote if ever there was one, and for repeat offenses. (When I challenged the argument that Towns and others should be punished for voting for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, my point was that trade bill votes had never traditionally been party line votes; I don"t need to revisit that question here.)

Another line was certainly crossed by Joe Lieberman last week, when he said, "It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril."

I"ve always cut Lieberman a lot of slack. He was my state rep when I was a little kid, and probably the first politician other than Nixon I could name. (Which makes it ironic that he would endorse such a Nixonian view.) When I worked in the Senate, I worked with his staff a lot on student loan and child support enforcement issues, and their intelligence and sincerity reflected their boss.  A friend who worked for him would often remind me that despite his posture, his voting record was not notably different from that of Senator Dodd, which is true, and on environmental issues, he not only votes right but has accomplished a lot.

But that endorsement of the Cheney view of the role of dissent, together with his blindness to the fact that only the president undermine"s presidential credibility, crosses the final line for me.

Which brings up the question, why can"t Lieberman be challenged? Yes, he"s generally very popular in the state, but via Ezra Klein, I notice a new poll suggests his support is eroding to 59% among Democrats. And among activist Democrats most likely to vote in a primary, Lieberman in theory ought to be especially vulnerable. Yet all the buzz seems to be about finding an independent anti-war candidate, such as former Republican Senator and independent governor Lowell Weicker, who Lieberman defeated in 1988. Why can"t there be a primary against Lieberman?

The answer has to do with Connecticut"s political culture and rules. Primaries don"t happen. Until a federal court ruling in 2002, a candidate who wanted to appear on a party"s primary ballot had to get 15% at the state party convention. That meant a grueling, expensive, and usually futile ground war in small town nominating conventions at which the state convention delegates were named. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which filed suit challenging the rule, in 50 years, not a single incumbent member of Congress or Senator, and only one governor, faced a challenge in a primary. (Nationally, 34% of incumbent Senators seeking reelection faced primaries in 2000.)

The 15% rule was found unconstitutional in 2003, and I"m not sure where things stand or whether the state has rewritten the law. Looking at the state Democratic Party rules, it appears that to appear on a statewide primary ballot, you have to get either 15% of the delegates or petition signatures representing 2% of the state"s registered Democrats, or about 13,000 signatures. But without a culture or habit of primaries in the state, it seems unlikely that they would start now.

What"s interesting about this is the history: Connecticut"s politics is the legacy of a severe but benign political machine, especially on the Democratic side. The system created by John M. Bailey, later national party chair and father of former Rep. and failed gubernatorial candidate Barbara Kennelly, was as disciplined as the Hague machine of Jersey City -- exemplified by the 15% rule -- but the politicians it produced were decent, smart admirable liberals like Senator Abraham Ribicoff and governors Chester Bowles and Brien McMahon.

And how do I know any of this history? When I was in high school, I read a great book about Bailey and the Connecticut machine. The author had written it as his senior thesis at Yale. His name was Joe Lieberman.

So maybe it"s time for the Democrats in Connecticut to send him back to book-writing.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on December 15, 2005 | Permalink


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But one problem is that there is no single name in Connecticut now prominent enough to challenge Lieberman. (Toby Moffet reminded us in a bitter letter to the Times that he lost to Lieberman.) The only widely known name at this time is Weicker--and (a) it's unlikely that he would run as a Democrat and (b) he's not widely popular in the redder hamlets of Cosnnecticut, since as governor he managed to impose an income tax on the state. And as an independent, he would strengthen the Republican candidate, who would otherwise not be a great threat. WSho else is there? Rosa DeLauro? I don't think she could make it--I don't think she'd even want to try. Nancy Johnson? Ditto, and she's determined to bea rah-rah Republican these days. The only other name I can even think of are men who have gone down in flames in the past. And surely the RNC would find money to support BOTH the Rep candidate AND Lieberman (hedging their bets)? Do you have a candidate in mind?

Posted by: | Dec 15, 2005 12:29:05 PM

It's strange ... I seem to be the only person who thinks Lieberman wasn't totally out of line. The whole comment was basically "Democrats should realize the President is the President. Also, the President should realize the war effort might go better if he listened to Democrats. It's a bad idea to undermine Presidential credibility." the subtext to the last line is that some day Democrats will control the Presidency, and they'll want the president to be credible.

The whole comment basically endorses a view that "giving up" on Iraq is a bad idea, and Democrats ought to figure out how to salvage the best out of the situation, and the President ought to stop with the "clap louder" talk. Of course, the latter won't happen, but it's something of a reasonable positon. He could of done a better job of saying that Democrats should be cautious about criticism.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Dec 15, 2005 1:06:16 PM

Nicholas Beaudrot -

This is a democracy, not a monarchy. If someone doesn't think Bush is credible, he or she should say so.

Posted by: Eric Jaffa | Dec 18, 2005 6:50:12 PM

I must admit that being on the ground in Connecticut. I have a very different view of what is going on. Ezra's right to point out the USA Today poll. There was also a Rasmussen poll which reports that 37% of Democrats would vote for Weicker if Weicker ran as an independent. I suspect that translates to enough support to force a primary.

The Draft Lowell Weicker movement is picking up a lot of steam ( see http://www.draftlowellweicker.com ). They are seeking to get Weicker to run as a Democrat. Also there are at least three other credible candidates who are considering a run against Lieberman, and there is growing talk of town committees turning against Lieberman.

It is also worth nothing that since the 2002 ruling there was a primary in the 2nd CD and there are currently two Democrats looking to run in the 5th CD this year, as well as two strong Democrats vying for the Gubernatorial nomination.

While I am not a big fan of the party machinery 'enforcing rigid party discipline on all issues', I am a big fan of primaries. I believe that we need to encourage participation in all aspects of the democratic process, including getting people excited about attending conventions, participating in primaries and becoming engaged in a dialog about the issues that we face.

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