Supporters of Joe Lieberman, most prominently those on the Republican National Committee and in the White House, spent Wednesday attempting to paint a bright picture of his defeat, insisting that the result spells doom for Democrats and that the composition of the Connecticut electorate is likely to produce a Lieberman victory in November. But Lieberman’s independent candidacy already faces substantial problems, which will only worsen in the coming weeks. And the joint Republican-Lieberman strategy of depicting antiwar sentiments as the province of the radical fringes is nothing short of frivolous given that a substantial and ever-growing majority of the country shares those sentiments.
With surprising speed and decisiveness, virtually the entire national Democratic establishment abandoned Lieberman Wednesday and pledged their unequivocal support for Ned Lamont. As the New York Times put it Thursday monring: “With promises of both money and personal campaign appearances, Democratic leaders rallied yesterday behind the campaign of Ned Lamont.” Those who originally supported Lieberman but who are now strongly backing Lamont include both Clintons, Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Connecticut’s other senator, Chris Dodd.
Some Democrats went beyond mere support of Lamont and began openly pressuring Lieberman to leave the race. They were led by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who “called on Mr. Lieberman to quit the race” and decreed that he “would be disappointed in any Democratic Party leader who continued to support Mr. Lieberman.” Wesley Clark issued a strong anti-Lieberman statement, calling for Lieberman to withdraw and urging that “we cannot let Joe Lieberman be this year’s Ralph Nader.”
For now, though, most Democrats have refrained from going that far, likely assessing that the day after Lieberman’s defeat — with all the anger and resentment it has surely created in him — is no time to try to persuade him to give up. Dodd, one of Lieberman’s closest allies, was reputed to have been tasked with talking Lieberman out of the race, but yesterday Dodd said: “It’s not up to me to call. I regret he made that decision but it’s pretty firm: I don’t think there’s any way to talk him out of it.” Notwithstanding Dodd’s claim, it appears that he attempted to speak with Lieberman but Lieberman “spurned a meeting with Dodd.”
Democrats’ efforts to persuade Lieberman to drop out will surely intensify in the days and weeks ahead. As the Washington Post this morning reported: “In background conversations, Democratic officials gently signaled their desire that Lieberman abandon his independent candidacy but appeared reluctant to press him publicly.” That reluctance likely will not last long: “A senior Democratic official in Washington said leaders had met and decided to put off confronting Lieberman at least for a few days, to allow the senator time to absorb the implications of his loss and his new isolation from longtime colleagues and supporters. ‘There’s a feeling that the dust needs to settle,’ the official said.”
Vocal, active attacks on Lieberman from the entire Democratic establishment will undoubtedly create serious problems for a Lieberman candidacy. For now, Lieberman and his supporters can (misleadingly) depict his loss as a noble defeat at the hands of those radical liberal bloggers and fringe leftists. But such a tactic will be unsustainable if Bill and Hillary Clinton, Reid, Dodd, Obama and Charles Schumer — the Democrats whom Lieberman was lauding when they supported him — begin openly and aggressively criticizing their former ally.
The circle of Lieberman allies is rapidly dwindling and the ones who will remain seem unlikely to be of much help to him in Connecticut. The Post, for instance, reported that “Lieberman’s campaign also confirmed an ABC News report that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had called the senator Tuesday night.”
And a Lieberman bid will be burdened by serious problems beyond the public abandonment by his entire party. Some reports suggest that Lieberman “asked for, and received, resignations from his entire primary campaign team.” But as Steve Benen reports, it is far more likely that these Democratic campaign consultants resigned in protest of Lieberman’s independent run, either on principle or because they cannot afford to be seen as working for a campaign that is opposing the nominated Democratic candidate. Either way, Lieberman has now lost virtually all of his senior campaign staff, and it will be very difficult for him to build a competent staff at this point — both because most consultants are already committed to other campaigns and because, as Markos Moulitsas warned, very few Democratic consultants will be willing to work with the outcast Lieberman campaign.
The Lieberman defeat has also vividly highlighted the worst attributes of both the national media and the Bush administration. Using their favorite tactic of exploiting the terrorist threat for domestic political gain, Bush supporters are already falsely depicting Lamont’s opposition to the Iraq war as some sort of fringe minority view, and are even suggesting — as usual — that the outcome they dislike (Lieberman’s defeat) will help “The Terrorists.” And much of the national media is mindlessly reciting this propaganda as fact.
Adam Nagourney in the Times Thursday morning reported: “Vice President Dick Cheney actually “went so far as to suggest that the ouster of Mr. Lieberman might encourage ‘al Qaeda types.’” Time magazine recounted that the RNC yesterday “mocked their opponents as isolationist ‘Defeat-ocrats.’” White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters: “It’s a defining moment for the Democratic Party, whose national leaders now have made it clear that if you disagree with the extreme left in their party they’re going to come after you.”
The notion that the White House is happy about the defeat of one of the most vigorous supporters of the Iraq war is nothing short of absurd. But more absurd still is the claim that the Democrats’ rejection of a war supporter means that the “extreme left” has taken hold of the Democratic Party. For more than a year now, polls have continuously demonstrated that opposition to the war is shared by the heart of mainstream America. The “extremist” view is not Ned Lamont’s, but rather, it is the pro-war position to which Lieberman and Bush supporters stubbornly cling.
But the White House’s fact-free spin on the Lamont victory was dutifully echoed by numerous journalists. Time’s Mike Allen, for instance, wrote what purports to be analysis of how happy Republicans are with the outcome of the primary, but is really nothing more than a GOP press release masquerading as Allen’s analysis. Echoing the White House decree, Allen claims that “many Democrats have the same worry. Lamont’s victory will no doubt give Republicans ammunition to caricature the Democratic Party as too liberal.” Allen continued: “The Democrats’ rejection of a sensible, moralistic centrist has handed the GOP a weapon that could have vast ramifications for both the midterm elections of ’06 and the big dance of ’08.”
But there is nothing “centrist” about Lieberman’s full-throated support of the ongoing occupation in Iraq. And Allen’s assertion that Democratic opposition will alienate moderate Americans is exactly what Dean described it as: “It’s right-wing propaganda.” As Dean put it: “They are beginning to look ridiculous: A majority of Americans now believe that going to Iraq was the wrong thing to do.”
Republicans can and will beat their chests as loudly as possible while they claim to be pleased about the results in Connecticut. But the last thing Republicans want is what Democrats in the Post this morning argue is the likely result of the Lieberman defeat: namely, that “Lamont’s triumph was more likely to turn the midterm elections into a national referendum on the war.” A referendum on this intensely unpopular war is — contrary to the boastful claims of Bush supporters and their media enablers — the last thing Republicans want. And only the most gullible journalists believe that the White House is happy to see an energized, impassioned Democratic Party, fueled by opposition to an extremely unpopular war and an eagerness to take a stand against an equally unpopular president.