Foreign Policy

A Shot of Nedrenaline for Antiwar Democrats?

Seeking Nedification from Democratic Party analysts

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So, what did the victory of Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman mean? That campaign finance laws guarantee that only rich candidates can beat incumbents? That Connecticut voters are a bunch of anti-Semites—possibly including the self-loathing 39 percent of Jewish voters who, according to the CBS/New York Times exit poll, went for Lamont? That the Democrats are repeating the mistakes of the McGovern era, elevating feckless and hopeless peaceniks over serious statesmen? Or that any Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 better be at least as antiwar as Lamont, or else be toast?

Or will it just mean that Vinegar Joe will go on to claim his rightful space in Congress, as a partyless free agent, doing whatever is right for the people of Connecticut—or, rather, insuring that the people of Connecticut do what's right for him?

Most important, did it mean I was totally wrong when I predicted, though not specifically a Lamont defeat (ass = covered), that antiwar sentiment would play little role in this year's election? The exit poll data certainly show it played a big role in this particular one: 61 percent said their view of the war was very important in their vote.

According to the same exit polls, 21 percent of Lamont voters just said it's time for a change. That, plus the quite unusual primary defeat of three different incumbents this week might presage an anti-incumbent wave this year that I, and I suspect the whole nation, will find, however powerful and devastating, delightfully cool and refreshing.

I talked Thursday about the meaning of Lamont's victory with a couple of Democratic thinkers and analysts who have spent a lot of time thinking about the Democratic Party, its future, and where antiwar sentiment fits in.

First up is John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation and an associate editor of the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times. His latest on Lamont is here.

Reason: Given some of the things you've written, it sounds like you'd be thrilled with what happened yesterday…

Nichols: It sounds like I should be thrilled. I've been writing for the past five years arguing the Democratic Party needs a coherent alternative foreign policy. The Lamont victory is significant, but it's not the one dramatic moment that shifts the Democratic Party.

Reason: Is it surprising given the amount of polled antiwar sentiment that more politicians haven't, like Lamont, really grabbed hold of the antiwar issue dramatically in their challenges to incumbents, of whatever party?

Nichols: It is surprising in the absence of knowledge of how the political system works. It's absolutely predictable when you understand the dynamics of American politics in 2006. It's almost fully dysfunctional, really controlled by money from interest groups of all sides. This year's election ought to be about war [given public discontent], and the fact that it isn't feeds resentment, frustration, and disenchantment. Connecticut may have the highest turnout of any state in its primary. Why? This election people got to cast a ballot that matters in a vital national and international debate, and that doesn't happen very often. But why it happened here was that Ned Lamont is a very, very wealthy man, able to buy the starting gate equality that most challengers cannot buy. He's not the citizen farmer who stood up and decides to challenge the elites.

Reason: Is Lamont's victory a sign that, as one Daily Kos diarist crowed, that the Democratic Party now clearly must be the antiwar party, and no presidential candidate in 2008 dare oppose this antiwar consensus?

Nichols: I think that it would be wonderful if Americans really did vote [based on] their honest sentiment on the war. But the Democratic grassroots are diverse. They will vote their sentiments in a number of different ways. I do think the Lamont victory and a number of other recent factors, some of them on the ground in Baghdad, will create a larger and more coherent antiwar vote than we saw in 2004.

Lieberman didn't adjust his statements and strategies [in the face of antiwar sentiment]. Clinton already has. She has just about the same stance on the war as Lieberman does, but the week before the primary she was blistering Rumsfeld at a hearing and issued a number of statements that make her sound skeptical, critical. She's making adjustments to make herself acceptable to all but the most precise antiwar voters.

What's significant about Lamont is not so much his antiwar stance, as that he was able to take a strong antiwar position and put it into a context that looked electable and broad. He never just talked about war in Iraq. He always said, we spent $250 million a day in Baghdad and Basra and that money could be spent in Bridgeport and New London.

It's an old school message and not overly sophisticated, but one Democrats have been lousy at delivering in recent years and it has a lot of appeal. He also talked about diplomacy and containment and other models for how to operate in the foreign policy world that most leading Democrats are unwilling to engage in. Lamont would get in front of 50-100 people and take five minutes to talk about George Kennan and models of how to deal with threats without invading countries.

The Democrat who can win on an antiwar position is a Democrat who can integrate that into a broader coherent message on how he could be president, and I don't see many doing that. One guy I see trying, and he's stumbling and it has been interesting to watch, is John Edwards. Whether he succeeds I don't know, but the first national politician to call and congratulate Lamont was Edwards. He's watching this all closely. Russ Feingold is trying to [be a popular antiwar candidate], but he's got that maverick image, that McCain style image, that voters love right until they have to go into a voting booth.

Reason: I floated the idea in an earlier piece that while voters are antiwar when polled, perhaps it wasn't an issue so important to them it would drive their votes.

Nichols: I think there's some validity to that theory. Some days the whole country is sighing and saying we gotta get out of this; two days later it's this annoying thing in the distance. Like campaign finance reform—we get 90 percent of Americans saying they are for fundamental campaign finance reform yet that is not what they vote on, not even what they demand out of politicians.

Reason: Could you argue that the late July statement from the Democratic Party congressional leadership (""U.S. forces in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces, and force protection of U.S. personnel.") shows that the Democrats are already officially the antiwar party, that the angry progressives have nothing to complain about. How did you assess it?

Nichols: I wish it was a strong antiwar statement. Here's how you know it isn't: Nobody noticed it. If you went to a thousand antiwar activists they wouldn't know about it, and the reason is it wasn't particularly dramatic—more war skeptic than antiwar.

[On either side there are stay the course and get out now Democrats.] Coming up the middle and dominating the message from party leadership is, we are very uncomfortable with the war, we think Bush has made a mess of it, but they think it's Bush's job to get us out. Our job as opposition party is to pressure Bush to come up with a plan to bring troops home, sometime. [The Democrats aren't presenting a] strong antiwar statement, like "elect us and we'll end the damn thing."

But 61 percent of Americans according to CNN this week support starting to bring troops out this year. 61 percent are for that, and there's no sure mainstream political party expression of that sentiment. Now, some people within the Democratic Party do express it, and some in the Republican Party do too. But you lack any coherent sense of, "If I vote for this party, I will get an end to the war."

I also talked to Mark Schmitt, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who blogs on politics as the Decembrist.

Reason: What's the larger meaning of Lamont's victory?

Schmitt: There's only one Lieberman and it's extremely important to get that. It wasn't that Lieberman voted for the war and opposes withdrawal. It's that he votes for war and opposes withdrawal and essentially operates on the same terms as Bush, in sharp contrast to Joe Biden, who opposes withdrawal for reasons about having to construct something reasonable in Iraq before we leave. But Lieberman goes on Stephanopoulos and talks about how things are getting better in Iraq because they're forming a government, but getting worse because the terrorists want to destroy it, and putting it in the exact same good v. evil terms that Bush does.

Every other Democrat who opposes withdrawal sees it as, well, a civil war is going on, we can't make things worse by pulling out, we must do something to make things better. Some Democrats want an end now, some think there has to be a withdrawal on a timetable. There's a range of positions acceptable in the Democratic Party, but what is not acceptable is to say Bush was right in the beginning and he's right now and stay the course.

Reason: What did you think of the July congressional leadership statement on Iraq?

Schmitt: I read it as a little weak-kneed, but that's the job of people who lead congressional caucuses. We Democrats didn't create the problem, but we are confronting the problem as we come closer to governing. I don't mind a range of viewpoints about what to do about the war within the party, from John Murtha to Biden. But if everyone in the debate is hedging and looking over their shoulder wondering how will Karl Rove mischaracterize what they said and can't be honest about what they think, we won't have a constructive debate.

Reason: That's at the heart of the question I'm wondering about here, and that I think Lamont's election makes even more complicated: With all this public antiwar feeling, why would a Democrat worry about what Rove says?

Schmitt: Because it has gotten so muddle up with question of, do you support the troops or not? What about the consequences of immediate withdrawal? Democrats are still spooked by everything related to national security. The 2002 election is still remembered—the attempt to change the topic to the economy and then getting kicked all over the place on national security. The same thing happened essentially in 2004.

Reason: What can a firmly antiwar voter expect to get out of the Democratic Party if it wins the House and Senate this year?

Schmitt: I think that's a good question, and there are a lot of people fired up about political engagement now who, if the Democrats win, think it will result in something [for them] and it's not clear at all what's gonna result. I think it will lead to changes in the Republican Party. Some of them will start saying, what have we been doing for six years being a rubber stamp.

But if Bush wants to keep saying stay the course, I'm not sure how much Congress can change that. In theory you maybe force some kind of bipartisan meeting, get an agreement on a plan between Congress and the president. I think if it were Reagan or the first Bush something like that would happen. The attitude could be, there's a crisis, let's all figure out a plan to go forward. But I don't see this White House doing that. And if the Democrats control Congress and still nothing got done about the war because it might not be within their power to do it, it would be a frustrating time for lots of people who entered the political debate for the first time this year.