Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Joseph Lieberman and the Lamont Ascendency

Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman is facing the primary election challenge of his life in Connecticut today. Lieberman's foe is political newcomer Ned Lamont, a Connecticut businessman with a deep pedigree in New England patrician society, but little political experience. There are huge national political implications arising from the contest, for both parties, whether Lamont wins the race or not. Over at today's OpinionJournal.com, Brendan Miniter provides some background to the historic importance of the election:

In one of the most watched races of the year, Connecticut Democrats head to the polls today to decide whether to endorse Sen. Joe Lieberman for a fourth term or to nominate antiwar candidate and political neophyte Ned Lamont. Unless Sen. Lieberman turns in a stunningly large victory, the outcome will hardly matter. Even if he falls short at the ballot box, Mr. Lamont has already succeeded at changing the political landscape on the left. Anyone who expects to get anywhere within the Democratic Party will now have to give the antiwar wing its due. The party of George McGovern is back.

If this were just Connecticut, maybe Democrats would get away with seeing the rise of Mr. Lamont and the downfall of a former vice presidential nominee as a fluke within a big-tent party. Perhaps then former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, outgoing Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would inspire the party to embrace policies that can win over middle-of-the-road or even Republican voters. Perhaps Bill Clinton's "third way" Democrats would still get a hearing. Perhaps Democrat Will Marshall wouldn't have to be out hawking a book--"With All Our Might"--that aims to prove that Democrats can be strong on national defense too. But it's not just Connecticut.

Democrats with national aspirations have been noticeably unwilling to come to Sen. Lieberman's defense. None of those expected to make a bid for their party's 2008 presidential nomination showed up in the Nutmeg State to stump for the beleaguered senator. John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner, Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson -- all steered clear. Bill Clinton did come out for a campaign appearance with Mr. Lieberman, but Al Gore refused even to endorse the man he put on his ticket six years ago....

In 1968 antiwar activists rioted outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in part because the party refused to adopt, as part of its platform, a plan for withdrawal from Vietnam. Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who went on to be defeated by Richard Nixon. Four years later the antiwar activists had made it inside the walls of the party and nominated George McGovern, whom Nixon crushed in the 1972 landslide. Today, amid another insurgent war, there is again a withdrawal plan on the table, and Democratic hopefuls will again be forced to decide between retreating from a foreign war and drawing fire from the most active members of their party. Antiwar activists are again a potent political force within the Democratic ranks, and this time it didn't take riots on national television to put them there.

Of course, this is President Bush's fault. In the past three election cycles -- in 2000, 2002 and most notably for his re-election in 2004 -- the president put the Republicans on top by running a get-out-the-vote campaign. In 2004 Mr. Bush even managed to win with a record turnout, proving to both political parties that getting their voters to the polls was more important than winning over supporters of the other party. By freeing the parties from hunting for votes across the aisle, Mr. Bush has inadvertently increased both the power and the stature of the most active wings of the two parties. Ironically for Mr. Bush, the net result is the rise in recent years of antiwar activists on the left and anti-illegal-immigrant activists on the right -- neither of which serves his political goals.

Nonetheless in the coming years we're likely to see more of the brand of politics practiced by the Club for Growth: political groups targeting members of their own party who stray too close to the political center. For the club that has meant funding conservative challengers to tax-hiking Republicans, such as Rhode Island's Sen. Lincoln Chafee. For Mr. Lieberman, it means facing a credible, self-financed antiwar candidate in Mr. Lamont.

The big prize is, of course, the White House. And unfortunately for Mrs. Clinton, a polarized political field may complicate her expected presidential bid in 2008. She's spent the past six years playing both sides of the aisle and has quietly amassed a reputation as a workhorse senator. She also voted for the war, but has spent much of the past three years distancing herself from the Bush administration's war policies and has largely avoided criticism on the left. The question now is, in a polarized political environment, can Mrs. Clinton make it through the Democratic primaries without being pulled too far to the left to be able to win the general election? For a party more interested in turnout than the mass appeal that a Sen. Lieberman might bring, will it matter?

Take a look at the whole thing, as I've omitted a couple of paragraphs from the middle of the essay. In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Martin Peretz, the Editor-in-Chief at The New Republic, spoke of Lamont's political rise as "the Lamont ascendency." Indeed, Sunday's Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article on Lieberman's challenger entitled, "Lamont Went From Zero to Favorite in 7 Months." With the race now down to the wire, one last-minute polling report found Lamont holding a 51-45 lead going into Tuesday's contest, a statistical tie actually, but nevertheless a margin leaning clearly away from Lieberman, a three-term Senate incumbent. Stay tuned -- the future of the Democratic Party is at stake.

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