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.

FILED UNDER: 2006 Election, 2008 Election, Congress, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Half Sigma says:

    Hillary, if she’s running for President, probably calculates that she’s popular enough to win the primary without being anti-war, and not being anti-war is crucial for winning the general election.

    And then, once’s she’s President, she can do whatever she wants.

  2. Pug says:

    not being anti-war is crucial for winning the general election.

    This is a false premise, I believe. It depends on how you define anti-war. A large majority of Americans want the war over and, in that sense, are anti-war. A sensible plan to withdraw American troops will be a winner. “Stay the course” will be poison. Fewer and fewer people are buying that one.

    When a quarter million Iraqis show up in the streets of Baghdad chanting, “Death to America”, I think it could be a real turning point for the American public. To me, and I’m sure to many others, that display was completely unacceptable and shows how badly the mission in Iraq has gone awry.

    On Friday, even John Gibson on his Fox News’ radio talk show was ready to throw in the towel and he’s one of the biggest “bomb ’em to hell” guys out there. There is a seismic shift in opinion about the war underway.

  3. mw says:

    The media continues to portray this contest as a one issue referendum on the war. While certainly the dominant issue, I think this view masks a widespread dissatisfaction with congress, not just the administration, and is reflected in a “zero tolerance” attitude toward incumbents. People are looking for an excuse to “vote the bums” out. Watching the debate, I was struck by several other differences between the candidates – most notably on the topic of “earmarks”. I went into the debate with an open mind, expecting to retain my mild preference for Lieberman. Lieberman’s brazen support for the earmark process, and craven appeal to Connecticut voters based on his ability to bring home the earmark “pork”, completely changed my thinking. Lamont took a principled stand on earmarks, which resonated with me and I suspect resonates with Connecticut voters. I posted a short video and transcript about this telling exchange in my blog post: To earmark or not to earmark, that is the question”

  4. lily says:

    I really wish people wouldn’t be so lazy in their use of language and it would be nice if people could understand things without imposing false dichotomies on situations. This isn’t aimed at OTB. Nearly all commentators on the Lamont/Lieberman race get it wrong because of the irrelevant and misleading pro/anti dichotomy or the left/right dichotomy.

    The problem with Lieberman isn’t that he voted for the war; lots of Dems did and are getting no primary challenge. The problem is that he continues to believe the neocon fantasy and he continued (up to the day before yesterday) to lie about conditions in Iraq, claiming that everything is going just fine. That’s what the Bush administration does: relies on ideology not reality, and covers up unpleasant facts with spin as if the war isn’t real, just something on TV to be manipulated for its effect on domestic politics. No self-respecting Democrat wants a Democratic Senator to behave like that.

    There is no easy answer to what to do about Iraq now. There are a variety of views on the subject which are accepted by the Democratic base. Most Democrats are willing to support any position except Lieberman’s. The only requirement most Dems have is that our politicans repudiate the initial decsion to invade; what to do now is entirely an open question. In general the Democrats’ ideas are in line with the public at large in wanting a withdrawal plan for sometime in a year or so. That’s a pretty vague plan but it is impossible to be less vague without slipping into pipedream territory since we don’t know what will happen in Iraq.

    “Stay the course” is pretty vague too since it’s just a slogan. What course? What changes are going to be made so it can be stayed successfully? Those questions won’t be asked, let alone answered, by Bush or his kiss-ups, including Lieberman.

    So there isn’t any pro/antiwar dichotomy and it hasn’t anything to do with being left or right. The dichotomy is between those who want politicians who are honest enough to recognize a problem and practical enough to be willing to discuss solutions (nearly every Democrat except Lamont) and those who insist that the neocon fantasy must be taken on faith and that that all birth pangs should be spun for domestic consumption with no real examination of policy (Bush etc. and Lieberman).

    I think the real issue to those who insist on the false dichotomies is the question of who gets the blame over the mess. Republicans want to blame either the media or the Democrats and Dems like Clinton are afraid that the Republicans will be successful in shoving the blame for their mess onto the Democrats. That’s a legitimate fear but it doesn’t have to be dealt with be keeping a closet republican in a Democratic seat..

  5. Jim says:

    The problem the Democrats faced regarding Vietnam and their credibility wasn’t merely a election cycle or two. If you look at the spread of 1968 – 1992, the only Democratic President was Carter and he got elected on the heels of Watergate. Clinton got elected in large part because of the public belief that foreign affairs was a secondary concern now that the Cold War was over. The problem with the withdraw crowd (and the media) is that that choice isn’t that simple: it is not a choice between American Soliders getting killed in Iraq or leaving. The consequences of the choice (a very good chance that Iraq would fall apart and AQ and Iran would be enboldened by our defeat there…other Middle Eastern regimes would learn like South Vietnam that the United States isn’t to be relied on) are not being debated.

    It is the consequences that will haunt the democratic party again as we make the same mistakes we did thrity years ago. The difference is that AQ and its ilk are revolutionary organizations unlike what the Soviet Union became in the 70s. In addition, with the current lessons that Isreal is learning regarding the world’s opinion of their actions, not having a nation state means having the world’s sympathy when your victim fights back.

  6. Tano says:

    “they only failed to get Howard Dean the party’s presidential nomination because of his own self-destruction before a live television audience.”

    Oh geez, this is so obviously wrong – why do you spread such nonsense? Dean’s “self-destruction” before a live TV audience happened AFTER he had spectacularly lost the Iowa caucuses and thus doomed his campaign. After that defeat, there was no way he would be the nominee, irresepctive of what his concessions speech would have been like.

  7. Stormy70 says:

    I love that the netroots is pushing moderate Dems out of their party. The Republicans will have reems of material to tar these anti-war candidates with, especially the anti-Semitism, race-baiting, and gay-baiting that these blogs engage in on a routine basis. The ads are writing themselves. People may not poll that they like the war, but most of them want a more severe response and are to the right of Bush. Progressives are kidding themselves, as usual.

    Progressive blogs are afraid to discuss the Mideast War, because their commenters go into a frenzy of anti-semitic conspriracy rantings. How do they think they will be able to tell the broader electorate that their anti-war candidates will be able to keep them and their children safe?
    They can’t even engage into a decent military debate without crying “chickenhawk” and shutting down the discussion. The left is too unreliable on National Security. Still waiting on any plan from the left that doesn’t rely on wishful thinking and reliance on the feckless UN or EU.

  8. “People vote prospectively, not retrospectively.”

    Not really; most voting is retrospective. In the case of Bush the elder, his problem was (a) that nobody cared about the Gulf War anymore (“success” meant that it was a non-issue) and (b) that perceptions of the economy didn’t catch up with reality until after November 1992 (indeed, perceptions of the economy always have some sort of built-in lag as it takes time for new information to displace old information in the electorate).