Lieberman Without Tears
One unctuous hawk's demise is not a trend.
Hold on to your hats, folks. Next month, the peacenik, McGovernite, appeasement-happy Democratic voters of yet another state are primed to take out another pro-war senator! Yes, that's right: Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who voted for the October 2002 Iraq war resolution, is fighting for her political life against intraparty challenger Hong Tran, a public-service attorney from the state who backs "the quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq" and ups the ante by arguing that Cantwell, after serving as George W. Bush's handmaiden on Iraq, has now "proudly cosponsored legislation with Republican Senator Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.) that lays the groundwork for military intervention in Iran." Private polls put Tran within striking distance, and my sources in Olympia contend that we may well see a replay of what just happened in Connecticut.
Is the Democratic Party out to immolate itself? Is there no end to this contagion?
There's one problem with the above scenario. It isn't true. Yes, Cantwell is a real senator; yes, she voted for the war (the Iran bit is news to me). Yes, Hong Tran, a woman of Vietnamese-American extraction, is a real person of apparent accomplishment, and she is indeed running against Cantwell chiefly on an anti-war platform. But there are no "private polls" that put Tran "within striking distance," and I have no "sources in Olympia." It's all but certain that Cantwell will waltz to renomination. On Aug. 6 the Seattle Times ran a profile of the "quixotic" challenger that reported Tran had raised a mere $18,000 from just 20 donors. "Confidence, Tran doesn't lack," reporter Alex Fryer concluded. "It's money and support that seem a little thin."
I think by now you've caught my point. At this minute, eight Democratic Senate incumbents who voted in favor of the Iraq resolution are seeking re-election: Cantwell, Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Tom Carper (Del.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), and of course Joe Lieberman (Conn.), now as an independent. And of those eight, exactly one—Lieberman—faced or is facing a serious primary challenge because of the war.
Remember the shock you felt back in June when Dianne Feinstein was defeated by that lefty nutjob in California? Or the fervid chants of "Bring Them Home!" ringing out from the Omaha night when Ben Nelson lost to his anti-war challenger? Didn't think so. That's because Feinstein won renomination with 87 percent of the vote, and Nelson didn't even face an opponent.
Of the primaries yet to play out, I've already told you about Cantwell. Nelson is unopposed in the Sept. 5 Florida primary. Clinton faces token opposition in New York from Jonathan Tasini on Sept. 12. Kohl, on that date, won't exactly have his hands full in Wisconsin battling marijuana activist Ben Masel.
Many commentators, including Slate's Jacob Weisberg, have looked at Ned Lamont's victory over Lieberman and concluded much too hastily that the Democratic Party is galloping recklessly leftward. But if that were truly the case, wouldn't, oh, five of these seven be facing serious primary challenges? Even three? (They teach us in journalism school that three makes a trend.) But there aren't even two Democratic senators facing more than nominal primary opposition. Four of the seven (Clinton, Feinstein, Carper, and Kohl) represent blue states where anti-war fever is running high. Why aren't they fighting for their political lives?
Because the Connecticut primary was about one man and one state. It was about Lieberman's excessive fawning over the president. It was about Lieberman's voting not only against the showboating withdrawal resolution introduced by Sen. John Kerry, but also against the moderate and reasonable resolution introduced by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, which merely urged the president to "expedite the transition of United States forces in Iraq to a limited presence and mission." (Lieberman was the only blue-state Democrat, except inexplicable retiring weirdo Mark Dayton, to vote against Levin.) It was about anger—fully justified anger, and from a far larger constituency than Z Magazine readers—at the notion, widespread among the commentariat, that national-security "toughness" demands support for the mendacious and ruinous policies of the Bush administration in Iraq and elsewhere. And, of course, it was about other things besides Iraq, too.
I do not deny the existence of symbolism in politics. Lieberman was almost vice president (would that he were, right now!) and therefore had a higher profile than most. His defeat does have ramifications—it will influence, at least for a time, how Democratic candidates in some (but by no means all) states talk about Iraq. And Ned Lamont, for his own vote-getting sake in Connecticut's general election and for the Democratic Party's sake, needs to be more careful about giving people a reason to flash peace signs and chant "Bring Them Home!" at his rallies in the future.
But Lamont is only one man, and his primary victory over one uniquely annoying incumbent hawk scarcely means the end of moderation in the Democratic Party. Here, a second octet is relevant: the eight Democratic Senate challengers to GOP incumbents who are within striking distance of unseating them (or in some cases ahead in current polls). I've written on this in the American Prospect, so I won't belabor the point, but the long and the short of it is that if the Democrats manage to retake the Senate, their caucus will in all likelihood be more moderate and have more red-staters than the current one.
Michael Tomasky is editor of the American Prospect.
Photograph of Ned Lamont onSlate's home page by Darren McCollester/Getty Images.