Democrats a One Issue Party?
Despite longstanding claims that the Democratic and Republican parties are virtually indistinguishable centrist machines, there are a number of explosive issues that divide their base constitutencies. These range from their views on taxation and redistribution of income, social issues like abortion and school prayer, and how to balance guns versus butter. Increasingly, though, it appears that one issue, the war in Iraq, is the only issue that matters to the Democrats.
Several issues in the news today illustrate this. First, Republican Jim Webb won the Democratic nomination for a highly targeted Senate seat. Aside from his vehement opposition to the Iraq War, there is no sense in which he is a Democrat, even by Southern standards.
Next, although it gets only page 10 coverage in today’s WaPo, Dan Balz’ report that Hillary Clinton was booed yesterday at the Take Back America conference is quite noteworthy.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) drew boos and hisses from an audience of liberal activists yesterday as she defended her opposition to a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, and later she received an implicit rebuke from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for failing to acknowledge that her support for the war was a mistake.
Clinton’s and Kerry’s appearances at the Take Back America conference at the Washington Hilton put on vivid display the Democratic Party’s divisions over the foreign policy issue that dominates this year’s midterm elections, and the two possible 2008 presidential candidates offered a preview of the debate that could dominate the battle for the party’s nomination.
Clinton and Kerry supported the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war. Kerry recently renounced that vote, but Clinton has never done so. She finds herself in opposition to a majority of Democratic activists and is the target of passionate criticism from some of them.
Clinton won repeated applause through most of her speech, which dealt at length with domestic issues but also sharply criticized President Bush’s handling of the war. But the audience turned against her when, in what she called a difficult conversation, she restated her long-standing position about timetables for withdrawing U.S forces. “I have to just say it,” she began. “I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government, nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country.”
Clinton finished on a more positive note, with an exhortation about winning the November elections that brought audience members to their feet cheering. But within minutes, as she worked the rope line on her way out of the hotel ballroom, she was the target of protesters, who chanted “Bring the troops home” and “Stop the war.”
Let me emphasize again that “Clinton won repeated applause through most of her speech.” Still, the fact that the presumptive overwhelming frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination is getting such disrespectful treatment from her own partisans over a rather nuanced position on the war is striking.
Finally, we have the longstanding efforts to drive Joe Lieberman, who was the darling of the party as recently as 2000–when he was the vice presidential nominee–almost exclusively over his support for the war. The latest development is a former state party chair telling Lieberman he’d be better off running as an independent.
A prominent ally of U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman urged Monday that Lieberman run for re-election as an independent and not trust his career to left-leaning Democratic primary voters in August. John F. Droney Jr., a former Democratic state chairman who helped Lieberman unseat Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1988, said Lieberman should make his case for re-election to all voters in November. “I think to be terrorized through the summer by an extremely small group of the Democratic Party, much less the voting population, is total insanity for a person who is a three-term senator,” Droney said.
Droney’s suggestion was not welcomed by the Lieberman campaign. The senator’s staff has been trying to discourage speculation that Lieberman, who is more popular with Republicans and unaffiliated voters than Democrats, might run as an independent. Lieberman’s campaign manager, Sean Smith, and Nancy DiNardo, the Democratic state chairwoman, immediately distanced themselves from the suggestion by Droney, who has played no major role in Lieberman’s 2006 campaign. “I believe that Joe Lieberman will win this primary. He has been a good Democrat, and I believe he will remain a Democrat,” DiNardo said.
While Lieberman should easily win re-nomination, it’s by no means a certainty. He might indeed be better off running as an independent–and surely winning re-election–than risking losing the nomination and then having to decide whether to become a Sore Loser Independent.
Parties have split over wars before, with the Whigs destroyed over the issues that led to the Civil War and many Southern Democrats leaving the party in the late 1960s and early 1970s at least partly over the position on Vietnam taken by the party leadership. Yet, by any standard, the war in Iraq is minor in scale compared to those conflicts. That it might fracture a political party is remarkable.