Iraq War is the Real Issue in Tuesday’s Connecticut Primary Battle

Originally posted: August 4, 2006

ken bode crop.jpgIn my collection of political buttons, there is one from 1970. It says simply, “Vote to End the War.” Two years after President Nixon inherited President Johnson’s war, there was no greater prospect for peace. Some grassroots Democrats wanted to keep opposition to the Vietnam War on the public agenda, so they organized and raised money for those congressional candidates who made Vietnam a centerpiece of their campaign message. They called their effort, Referendum ’70.

“Vote to End the War” is the core message of insurgent Ned Lamont, who goes against three-term Sen. Joe Lieberman in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Connecticut. This is the closest America will come this year to a clear referendum on the war in Iraq. Mr. Lieberman has been a the cozy ally of President Bush on Iraq policy, an apologist for the war itself, even to the point of helping the Administration escape accounting for Abu Ghraib. He also defends Alberto Gonzales who helped Mr. Bush to shred the “quaint” Geneva Conventions. Lieberman has given cover to Bush on all issues involving Iraq. Understandably, it is more difficult for Democrats to reach a consensus on how to end the war while their former vice presidential candidate embraces the President’s policies.

“Vote to End the War” is more or less how Sunday’s New York Times’ lead editorial put the case. Calling Lieberman “President Bush’s chief Democratic enabler,” and one of the President’s “most useful allies,” the Times endorsed Ned Lamont. Tuesday, said the Times, will be a referendum on Mr. Lieberman’s “warped version of bipartisanship in which the never-ending war on terror becomes an excuse for silence and inaction.”

Lieberman seems outraged at the challenge. He characterizes Lamont supporters as haters and jihadists. In the only candidate debate, the senator repeatedly and dismissively asked, “Who is Ned Lamont?” Lamont favors setting a timetable for withdrawal. Lieberman shrugs off that idea as “dumb.” In so many ways the senator reveals his irritation at his situation and his belief that re-nomination should be an entitlement, like a lifetime peerage. Suggesting the primary may not produce a valid measure of Connecticut opinion, he now is gathering signatures to run as an independent should he lose on August 8. This only reinforces the doubts of those already skeptical about Lieberman’s party loyalty.

Those who know the three-term incumbent well, know he is a political careerist who always puts Lieberman first. “I’m a loyal Democrat but I have loyalties that are greater than those to my party,” Lieberman has said. One of his priorities is protecting his future, as he did when on the national ticket with Al Gore in 2000. Then he refused to step down from the Senate, choosing instead to run simultaneously for vice-president and re-election. Had Gore won, Lieberman’s successor would have been chosen by Connecticut’s Republican governor.

Many are trying to make this election into something it is not. Lieberman’s fate is not, “a test case for muscular internationalism in the Democratic Party,” as the Weekly Standard put it. It is not a triumph for the “netheads,” the left wing of the blogosphere, as many have said, nor an emergent battle between the party’s grassroots and its establishment. “This is no exaggeration,” exclaimed Morton Kondrake in Roll Call: “The soul of the Democratic Party — and possibly the future of civility in American politics — is on the line in the August 8, Senate primary in Connecticut.” That’s how exaggerated the rhetoric has become. It is really much more simple. Every vote Ned Lamont gets, except maybe his mother’s, will be a vote against the war, Mr. Bush’s policies and Mr. Lieberman’s collaboration.

Primaries are scheduled in August to assure a small turnout. One sign that might not be so in Connecticut is that an unusually large number of unaffiliated voters are turning up to register as Democrats. With the Quinnipiac University poll showing that two-thirds of Connecticut voters — Republicans included — oppose the war, I would be surprised if these folks are switching to vote for Lieberman, Bush, and more war.

In the debate, Lieberman said, “Ned Lamont seems just to be running against me based on my stand on just one issue, Iraq.” He’s half right. It is also true, as the Times put it, that Joe Lieberman “has fallen in love with his image as the nation’s moral compass.” True, perhaps. But Iraq would have been sufficient. Just Vote to End the War.

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