Lieberman agonistes: Is it 1968 all over again?

Pundits try to link the Lamont campaign to the conflicts that divided Democrats four decades ago.

Published July 31, 2006 2:37PM (EDT)

Call them pre-mortems: As Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's primary campaign struggled and the New York Times endorsed his dark-horse challenger, Ned Lamont, this past weekend saw a considerable number of how'd-he-get-here news accounts. The Hartford Courant overview probably offered the most value; the New York Times piece provided the sharpest quote.

The Times' Adam Nagourney had Lieberman's Senate colleague Chris Dodd explaining that he told Lieberman: "As painful as it is, the first words out of your mouth and the last words out of your mouth every time you speak have to be 'I'm a Democrat.'" Dodd presumably meant the "pain" lay in Lieberman's even having to remind people of his party affiliation; but he also made it sound as if the words themselves might cause Lieberman discomfort. That's not going to help the candidate who has rapidly lost the support of Democrats who feel he has cozied up too closely to President Bush.

As the Lieberman tea leaves danced in the cup, some pundits stared and began to make out a familiar pattern: It's 1968 all over again! Those angry antiwar Democrats are about to split their party! For instance, the Post's David Broder labeled the Lamont campaign "elitist insurgents," linked it to Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern and suggested that Lamont's backers are a "breed of Democrats -- many of them wealthy, educated, extremely liberal" who "often pick candidates who are rejected by the broader public." In the Times, Robin Toner and Jim Rutenberg surveyed pollsters and pundits who argued that the national rift over Iraq is more bitter and partisan even than the rift over Vietnam was -- and wrung their hands over the passing of some (probably mythical) Golden Age of bipartisanship.

All of which makes us shake our heads, because some essential history is being conveniently forgotten here. In 1968, when the rebellious Democrats turned on their own war president, their party was profoundly divided: antiwar liberals split from pro-war blue-collar voters and Southern Democrats with whom they'd long shared the big tent of FDR's New Deal coalition. In 1968 that coalition shattered: The Southern Democrats left the party under George Wallace's banner, and the blue-collar voters began the transformation that would turn them into Reagan's swing voters.

This year, by contrast, the Democrats are united. Beyond the Beltway, you actually have to hunt far and wide to find any significant concentration of Democrats who share Joe Lieberman's views on Iraq. The Connecticut senator's problem isn't that he is the victim of a 1968-style party split; it is that his party is fundamentally agreed on a central issue, and he has chosen to flout that position. The voters' ire isn't fratricidal; they're simply looking for a candidate who actually, you know, represents them on the most important issue of the day.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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