Saturday, March 25, 2006

One Way: Do Not Enter

At some point – assuming Joltin’ Joe Lieberman marches back into office clutching in his fist the highest vote total of any Democrat U.S. Senator in Connecticut history – the majority party in the state will realize that they have a Weicker problem on their hands; for Lieberman is the mirror image of former senator and governor Lowell Weicker.

Conservatives used to gnash their teeth over Weicker, a Republican who voted like a Republican but thought like a Democrat, until he was polished off by Lieberman, a Democrat who votes like a Democrat but occasionally thinks like a Republican.

The beef on Weicker was that he was undermining the Republican Party. Why doesn’t someone take over the state GOP, Weicker once mused, it’s such a small and insignificant thing – unlike, well … you know who. Weicker then persuaded Republicans to accept as their chairman his long-time aide and major domo Tom D’Amore, who has now resurfaced as a consultant to Ned Lamont, the Greenwich millionaire who hopes to challenge Lieberman in a primary. The ease with which Weicker fobbed off D’Amore on moderates in his party more or less proved his thesis, and the Republican Party today remains little more than a coffee klatch of earnest moderates in the service of the governor.

As Yogi Berra used to say, “It’s déjà vu all over again” -- in reverse.

The beef against Lieberman is that he is not a party animal. Democrat progressives have been gnashing their teeth over Lieberman’s position on the Iraq war for months, and when Bush shamelessly pecked Lieberman on the cheek, an acknowledgement that the president preciated’ the senator’s sometimes full-throated support, the volcanic activity churning in progressives' brains blew the tops of their heads off. The leftist vanguard of the party said “Enough! Joe must go!” Weicker crooked his finger in the direction of Lamont; the bloggers began to churn and burn; and the long knives were drawn.

What about the muddle in the middle or, as one political commentator put it, the “vital center” of state politics? Weicker was successful because he was able to define himself successfully as a Republican moderate; Lieberman has successfully defined himself as a Democrat moderate. Can the left wing of the Democrat Party convince moderates huddled in the muddled middle that they should vote for Lamont? Moderation, rather than a political position, is a strategy dodge, a way of disarming the sleepy mass of party voters who are too busy to pay much attention to ideological tenets. Both Weicker and Lieberman – with important assists from prominent journalists, moderates by profession – are very good at this.

Primaries, the battering rams that were supposed to open party doors for activists, have been turned against progressives by the political establishment. How can a liberal – or, for that mater, a conservative – oust a moderate Democrat or Republican incumbent? Well, you primary the incumbent, usually through raw ideological appeals to the party base, liberal or conservative. And then comes the general election, where ideological influence is diluted by the sheer numbers of party moderates.

Right now, as progressive puppies are yapping at his heels, Lieberman, who has cornered the market on union endorsements and pledges of support from notable Democrat Party leaders, is running a campaign oriented towards a general election.

The war in Iraq has become an albatross, but on other matters Lieberman has been, as his voting record demonstrates, an opposition Democrat. In any debate between himself and Lamont, Lieberman will be able to tick off numerous instances in which he has placed himself in opposition to the Bush agenda. And Lieberman will be persuasive on this point because he will be saying it the way it is.

The recent dust-up between Hartford Courant columnist and radio talk show host Colin McEnroe and the dyspeptic senator opened a small window on possible debates between Lieberman and Lamont, the progressive’s Great White Hope. To be sure, Lieberman had an edge on, largely because he had imagined that McEnroe would be able to address the issue of Lieberman’s position on the Iraq war objectively and professionally. Ha! But Lieberman’s general pitch was aimed over McEnroe’s head – to the vital center of his party.

Now then, if anti-incumbents in the Democrat Party were able to field against Lieberman someone to his right, they might have a chance of unseating him. That was the primary lesson of the Weicker/Lieberman campaign. But this road has been posted by progressives: One way; Do Not Enter.

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