Eyes do not wander from the race in Connecticut, kicked off by a debate between the incumbent, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and the challenger, Ned Lamont. Commenting on the race, David Brooks, a seer and a columnist for the New York Times, has ventured that it foretells what may be a remarkable divide. If Lamont beats Lieberman, the message to voters across the United States, will be that the Democratic tent is on an exclusivist roll. None may feel at home in it who tolerated, let alone encouraged, the war in Iraq over which President Bush has presided. It challenges the imagination to wonder productively what will be the political declamations at the Democratic convention in 2008 if the Democrats are to be the party that kicked out sitting Senator Joe Lieberman six years after he was named their vice presidential candidate, notwithstanding that 90 percent of his Senate votes have been with his party, opposing President Bush.
A close study of the transcript of the July 6 encounter brings to mind the sad state of debate between candidates of the same party. Here they were, together for one hour, and divided, really, on only the single issue of whether our military venture in Iraq a) should be terminated by fixed schedule, and b) was worthwhile to begin with. The challenger, Lamont, didn’t spend much time on how we should never have got into Iraq to begin with. This was so because manifestly he didn’t want to appear a statue of indifference while Lieberman went on about life under Saddam Hussein. Lamont’s refrain is about Getting Out, not about how We Should Not Have Got In. In 1972, the Democrats were in terrible shape. The Vietnam War was visibly just about done, but retrospective regret that it had ever been undertaken could not be expressed except as regret that Lyndon Johnson had been president of the United States during the years in which the pursuit of a free Vietnam had been U.S. policy. What happened politically was a Republican victory in 49 states. If Ned Lamont succeeds in discharging Joe Lieberman as an unacceptable Democrat, voters by the millions will think of themselves as disfranchised.
When Lieberman got into his peroration at the debate he said about himself what a debate coach might have counseled him to say. He gave evidence of his institutional qualifications to continue in office. Look who has supported me! ”The AFL-CIO wouldn’t have supported me if they didn’t think I would fight for jobs in this state.” (Was he saying the unions preferred jobs for Connecticut as against jobs for New York?) ”Planned Parenthood wouldn’t have supported me if they weren’t confident that I was for women’s reproductive rights.” (In Connecticut, all Democrats are on the side of abortion.) “The League of Conservation Voters wouldn’t have supported me if they didn’t appreciate my strong, strong record on environmental protection.” (Nobody in Connecticut opposes environmental protection. Senator Lieberman might as well have said, No motorist would have backed me if I hadn’t supported a speed limit.) And, “The Human Rights Campaign political action committee wouldn’t have supported me if I had been fighting [other than to] protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.” Does that do it? The big tent, model 2006, for the Democratic party?
Mr. Lieberman resents the high price of oil. So does Mr. Lamont. Who resents it more? Waal, they can fight over that one. Mr. Lieberman can say that there were parts of the energy bill he didn’t approve of, and he’s trying to pull them back up for a revised vote. Oh yes, he is “cosponsoring [that] legislation with John Kerry.” Apropos of the high cost of oil, he has introduced “excess profits legislation, which would tax the oil companies and give it back to consumers for their outrageous rip-off of consumers.” Has it been established that there is U.S. extortion or monopoly pricing in oil? Did the Republicans invent OPEC?
The Republicans have tactical and strategic interests in the Lieberman race. If Lamont wins the primary and a Democratic seat is forfeited, that’s a tactical victory: one more Republican vote in the Senate. But if the correlation is a dramatic shrinkage in the Democratic vote nationwide–a million Democrats unable to squeeze into the narrower tent–then that would be a strategic result that would imperil the two party system.