Demonizing fellow Democrats

Joe Lieberman shares not only Bush's views on Iraq but also the administration's rhetorical tactics for attacking war critics.

Published August 8, 2006 1:55PM (EDT)

The primary challenge to Joe Lieberman was never fueled exclusively, or even primarily, by his support for the Iraq war. That proposition is conclusively proved by the fact that numerous other Senate and House Democrats who voted for the war are not facing similar challenges. The vigor and intensity of the opposition to Lieberman stem not merely from the fact that he shared the president's positions on Iraq and foreign policy generally, but far worse, that he adopted the Bush/Rove political rhetoric on those issues and -- alone among prominent Democrats -- repeatedly wielded that rhetoric as a tool to bash and demonize anyone who opposed Bush's policies.

Lieberman provided a stark reminder of that point Monday night when he made a last-ditch effort to persuade Connecticut voters to allow him to keep his Senate seat:

He said a victory for Lamont will send a message to the country: "In the Democratic Party, there's no room for strong-on-security Dems." He said that would be disastrous for the Democrats. "You can't win in this country," he said, "unless you assure people" that you aren't going to compromise on national security. He said he has backed the war on terror because he never forgets about the "radical Islamic terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and want to do it again."

As he has done so many times before, Lieberman suggested that anyone who disagrees with him on Iraq -- which happens to be the vast majority of the Democratic Party, as well as the country -- is not a "strong-on-security" Democrat, and that Lamont supporters and those like them want "to compromise on national security."

That is exactly the demonization scheme Karl Rove has exploited to help win two straight national elections and will undoubtedly try this year for a third. By this "reasoning," opponents of the war in Iraq and other Bush policies criticize those policies not because they consider them counterproductive and misguided, but because they are "weak" on defense and want to "compromise national security."

More than anything, that is what accounts for the strong hostility toward Joe Lieberman -- he not only supports Bush's policies on the most critical issues of the day but echoes Bush's most virulent political attacks on Democrats. And he's been doing that for several years now.

The most frequently noted Lieberman attack on Democrats was his Dec. 6, 2005, appearance on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, where he now infamously warned: "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years. And that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril." But he had been making the same point long before that.

At the Brookings Institution in April 2004, Lieberman criticized debates over the Iraq invasion and urged Americans "in the interest of our nation's security, and in pursuit of our nation's highest ideals, to stop the bickering." Then, in the same speech, in the middle of a presidential election year, he issued this plea: "In short, I am calling for a bipartisan political truce on the home front that will greatly help us achieve the victory we all desire on the battle front." So while Democrats were attempting to persuade the country that the president should be turned out of office because of his conduct with regard to Iraq, Lieberman was calling for a "political truce" and depicting such criticisms of Bush as petty, destructive "bickering."

In the same speech, Lieberman suggested that vocal opposition to the war was tantamount to assisting America's enemies: "My point here is that the home front affects the battle front. Politics as usual at home can and will have unusually bad consequences in Iraq. It encourages our enemies to believe they are succeeding in their attempts to influence our policy. They clearly seek by their hostage taking, by their desecration of the bodies of our dead, and by their terrorism to break the will of the people of America." That is the sort of "Democrats are allies of our enemies" rhetoric that one expects to find in Rush Limbaugh's daily demonizing rants or on Michelle Malkin's blog, not in a speech from a Democratic senator.

Worse still, on the floor of the Senate in March 2004 Lieberman told Democrats that "questioning how we got into the last war against Saddam ... is not acceptable anymore." And then there was Lieberman's comparison of Howard Dean to Saddam Hussein after Dean questioned whether Saddam's capture would make America significantly safer ("Howard Dean has climbed into his own spider hole of denial").

It cannot be argued in good faith that Democrats are intolerant of any elected official who supported the war in Iraq or that such support is some sort of "litmus test." There are scores of pro-war Democrats who are not being ejected from the party or even being challenged electorally. Lieberman went far beyond mere support for the war, and repeatedly adopted the most demonizing and extremist rhetoric used by Bush's supporters to equate opposition to the Bush administration's foreign policies with anti-Americanism and support for America's enemies. It should surprise nobody if the people whom Lieberman has been attacking and demonizing in this manner decide that they would like to have a different senator.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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