Lieberman Loss = President Gore?
Dan Balz has a front page piece in today’s WaPo on the implications of a now seemingly inevitable loss by Joe Lieberman in Tuesday’s Democratic primary on the 2008 presidential race.
An upset by Lamont would affect the political calculations of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who like Lieberman supported giving Bush authority to wage the Iraq war, and could excite interest in a comeback by former vice president Al Gore, who warned in 2002 that the war could be a grave strategic error. For at least the next year, any Democrat hoping to play on the 2008 stage would need to reckon with the implications of Lieberman’s repudiation.
[A] loss on Tuesday could generate more demand for a strongly anti-Bush, antiwar candidate in the Democratic primaries. Several are ready to run, including Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), the only one of the three to vote against the war in 2002. None, however, may be as attractive to the grass-roots activists as Gore. He has said he cannot conceive of circumstances that would put him in the race. But he may be coaxed to reconsider if the sentiment for him grows after the November midterm elections.
Still, many party moderates say they see worrisome parallels to what happened to the Democrats during Vietnam, when they opposed an unpopular war but paid a price politically for years after because of a perception the party was too dovish on national security. “Candidates know they cannot appease [antiwar] activists if they are going to run winning national campaigns,” said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. “It will intensify the tension inside the Democratic coalition as we head into two critical elections.”
But leaders of the net-roots activists, and some party strategists, argue that as antiwar sentiment spreads Democrats stand to gain politically by aggressively challenging Bush’s war policies. Parallels to Vietnam are inaccurate, they say, because of the nature of an Iraq war that has become a low-level sectarian civil war.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff sees the Connecticut Senate race as critically important in shaping the midterm campaigns. “This will embolden Democrats around the country,” he said. “I think that this primary in its own way sets off a chain of events that makes the fall elections very quickly a debate that could be framed as a [Democratic] timeline [for withdrawing U.S. forces] versus Republicans supporting a longer-term solution.”
All of that may bode well for the Democrats, given sentiment about the war. As Democratic pollster Peter Hart put it: “What [Connecticut] tells us about the fall is something I think we’ve known all along, and that is the status quo in Iraq is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to Democratic primary voters, it’s unacceptable to independents and it’s unacceptable to a large minority of Republicans. Iraq is the number one issue and the message is exceptionally simple: We cannot abide the status quo.”
McInturff [Full disclosure: My wife is a VP in his firm] and Hart are almost certainly correct vis-a-vis the midterm elections, although I do think it’s possible for Democrats to read too much into the results in one particularly liberal state.
I believe Balz is likely wrong, though, in regards to 2008. Regardless of what happens in November–but especially if the Democrats manage to take back one or both Houses of Congress–the status quo in Iraq will certainly not still be with us when the presidential primaries start kicking into full gear. One way or the other, the American combat role in Iraq will be essentially over, probably with a significant logistical structure remaining behind. Once the death toll diminishes, the news cycle will shift. Therefore, it’s almost inconceivable that the 2008 race will be decided on the Iraq issue.
People vote prospectively, not retrospectively. Recall, for example, that George H.W. Bush was not re-elected, despite the fall of the Soviet Union and the swift ouster of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait under his command.
I do agree with Marshall, however, that the Democrats may well overplay their hand. The netroots are increasingly guiding Democratic party politics–and, more importantly, fundraising and recruiting of campaign volunteers. They’re more powerful, by far, than they were in 2004 when they only failed to get Howard Dean the party’s presidential nomination because of his own self-destruction before a live television audience. As bad as both Al Gore and John Kerry were as candidates, they were light years better than Dean would have been.