Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s painful struggle to win his party’s nomination for a fourth term is the latest example of how deeply split the Democrats are over the war in Iraq.
So divided, in fact, that they are attempting to politically purge some of some of their strongest and most respected leaders in what is turning out to be a Democratic civil war that could undermine their party’s chances to gain seats in the November elections.
Thus far, for all their fierce bravado, the party’s antiwar forces have yet to demonstrate they have the firepower to punish Democrats who support the war. But antiwar challenger Ned Lamont, a millionaire cable TV executive with the backing of left-wing bloggers and activists, hopes to be the first to prove that he has that power at the ballot box.
As this is written, Lamont, a political neophyte, is fast gaining on the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee, shrinking Lieberman’s lead to 15 % or less in June, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
That may sound like a safe margin for Lieberman, but it could evaporate in the heat of the Aug. 8 primary, where a mere 25 % of the party’s rank-and-file could turn out. And the majority of them could well be highly motivated antiwar voters who are outraged by Lieberman’s steady support for President Bush’s war policies.
"Lieberman’s in a lot of trouble. He certainly can still win, but he is definitely in a big fight," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate elections analyst at the Cook Political Report.
Further enflaming the Democrats’ bitter internecine war over Iraq was Lieberman’s move last week to hedge his bets on the primary, deciding to begin collecting the 7,500 signatures needed to put himself on the ballot in the fall if Lamont is successful.
"While I believe I will win the Aug. 8 primary, I know there are no guarantees in elections. I am very confident that if every Democrat, or even a majority of them, vote on Aug. 8 I will be nominated by a very comfortable margin," he said in a letter to supporters.
"But, no one knows how many Democrats will come out to vote, and few think it will be more than 25 or 30 %. And what if my opponent, who says he is worth somewhere between $90 (million) and $300 million decides to write bigger and bigger checks in the last weeks of the campaign," he adds.
Few, if any, Democratic state officials doubt that in a much-higher-turnout general election, Lieberman would lose. Quinnipiac polls reveal that most voters, including many Republicans, like Lieberman and support him, by 56 % to 34 %. But his approval among just Democrats is narrower — 49 % to 38 %.
Lieberman has been an independent if sometimes lonely Democratic voice who has fought his party’s liberal wing on national security and key domestic issues. Besides support for the war, he has been a booster of vouchers to let parents pull their kids out of failing public schools, tax cuts on capital gains, and was once open to retirement reform that would allow workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes.
Now he is in the fight of his life against an army of antiwar activists led by MoveOn.org and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas in a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party.
But political analysts make the mistake of thinking that this is only about Lieberman. It is, in fact, about the ideological direction of the party on core national security issues that will likely decide its future in 2008 and beyond.
The noisy antiwar, pacifist forces on the left who preach defeatism and retreat in the war on terror and seek to oust Lieberman, are after a lot of other hawkish Democrats, too, like New York’s Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, like Lieberman, voted for the Senate war resolution and counsels against a precipitous troop pullout by a specific deadline. Lieberman is touting his record over three terms, saving the Groton base from the Pentagon’s ax and landing major defense contracts for the state, saying this race is not about just Iraq but his overall service to his country, his state and his party. But the race really is about Iraq, which has become a defining issue for his party and those who seek his defeat.
"Antiwar Democrats have a huge stake in taking down someone like Lieberman," Duffy said in a recent analysis of the race. "His defeat in the primary would send a loud (but troubling) message to other Democrats who buck the party on critical issues."
But as noisy and angry as the leftwing bloggers and the MoveOn.org groups may be, they have yet to prove they can win elections. I’m betting at this point that Lieberman will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.