Political analysts tend to overinterpret the results of isolated elections. But you can hardly read too much into Ned Lamont’s defeat of Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s Aug. 8 primary. This is a signal event that will have a huge and lasting negative impact on the Democratic Party. The result suggests that instead of capitalizing on the massive failures of the Bush administration, Democrats are poised to re-enact a version of the Vietnam-era drama that helped them lose five out six presidential elections between 1968 and the end of the Cold War.
The election was about one issue and one issue only: the war in Iraq. Joe Lieberman was an otherwise highly regarded, well-ensconced Democratic incumbent who would never have faced a meaningful primary challenge had he not vocally supported President Bush’s invasion in 2003, continued to defend the war in principle, and opposed adopting a timetable for withdrawal. Ned Lamont, a preppy political novice from Greenwich, got the idea to run last year when something he read in the Wall Street Journal made him gag on his breakfast. It was a hopeful analysis of Iraq by Lieberman. As a candidate, Lamont was less a fleshed-out alternative to Lieberman than a stand-in for an anti-war, anti-Bush movement. His campaign was made plausible by Web-based “Net roots” activists who cared principally about the war in Iraq and badgered Lieberman mercilessly about his support for it.
Lieberman’s opponents are not entirely wrong about the war. The invasion of Iraq was, in ways that have since become hard to dispute, a terrible mistake. There were no weapons of mass destruction to be dismantled, we had no plan for occupying the country, and our troops remain there only to prevent the civil war we unleashed from turning into a bigger and more horrific civil war. Just about everyone now agrees that the sooner we find a way to withdraw, the better for us and for the Iraqis. The problem for the Democrats is that the anti-Lieberman insurgents go far beyond simply opposing Bush’s faulty rationale for the war, his dishonest argumentation for it, and his incompetent execution of it. Many of them appear not to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously. They see Iraq purely as a symptom of a cynical and politicized right-wing response to Sept. 11, as opposed to a tragic misstep in a bigger conflict. Substantively, this view indicates a fundamental misapprehension of the problem of terrorism. Politically, it points the way to perpetual Democratic defeat.
We know this because we have been here before. The Lamont-Lieberman battle was filled with echoes and parallels from the Vietnam era. Democratic reformers and anti-establishment insurgents weren’t wrong about that conflict, either. Vietnam was a terrible mistake for the United States. But like Iraq, Vietnam was a badly chosen battlefield in a larger conflict with totalitarianism that America had no choice but to pursue. In turning viciously on stalwarts of the Cold War era like Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson, anti-war insurgents called into question the Democratic Party’s underlying commitment to challenging Communist expansion. The party’s Vietnam-era drift away from issues of security and defense—and its association with a radical left hostile to the military and neutral in the fight between liberalism and communism—helped push a lot of Americans who didn’t much like the Vietnam War into the arms of Richard Nixon.
Joe Lieberman can be cloying and sanctimonious. Connecticut is uncharacteristically liberal, even for a blue state. The primary was held in August, when many voters are away on vacation. But despite these mitigating factors, the warning from Democratic history is plain. Consider the parallels to Connecticut’s 1970 Senate election. That year, the two-term Democratic incumbent was Thomas J. Dodd, the father of current Sen. Christopher Dodd. A classic Cold War liberal and pillar of the establishment, the senior Dodd was challenged in the Democratic primary by the Rev. Joseph Duffey, an anti-war minister whose youthful supporters included Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, and one Joe Lieberman. Facing defeat, Dodd dropped out of the Democratic primary and declared as an independent, much as Lieberman now plans to do. By splitting the Democratic vote, Dodd helped swing the election to the Republican nominee, Lowell Weicker.
This time, Connecticut Republicans are probably too weak to capture Lieberman’s seat, even with the help of a Democratic division. But as in 1970, the real significance of the Connecticut race was what it says about the party nationally, and what it portends for the next presidential election. In 1972, the Democrats repudiated their flawed Cold Warriors and chose as their standard-bearer a naive and honorable anti-war idealist. It was not George McGovern’s opposition to Vietnam but his larger tendency toward isolationism and his ambivalence about the use of American power in general that helped him lose 49 states to Richard Nixon. In a similar way, the 2006 Connecticut primary points to the growing influence within the party of leftists unmoved by the fight against global jihad. Nixon had the gift of hippie demonstrators and fellow-traveling bluebloods like Ned’s great uncle Corliss Lamont as antagonists. Today’s Republicans face an anti-war movement with a different tone and style, including an electronic counterculture of enraged bloggers and callow entrepreneurs like Ned himself. Yet the underlying political dynamic is not altogether different.
Whether Democrats can avoid playing their Vietnam video to the end depends on their ability to project military and diplomatic toughness in place of the elitism and anti-war purity represented in 2004 by Howard Dean and now by Ned Lamont. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for 2008, is trying to walk this difficult line, continuing to express support for the war in principle while becoming increasingly strident in her criticism of its execution. As the congressional elections approach, many Republican candidates are fleeing Bush’s embrace because of his Iraq-induced unpopularity. But Lamont’s victory points to a way in which Bush’s disastrous war could turn into an even bigger liability for the Democrats.