The last hawkish Democrat leaves the building

Posted: Aug 11, 2006 9:00 AM
The last hawkish Democrat leaves the building

There was hype in the air as it became clear that Sen. Joe Lieberman’s fortunes were turning southward in his primary battle against millionaire vanity candidate — and now Democratic nominee — Ned Lamont.

For Lamont’s supporters, their veins coursing with “nedrenaline” (yes, they really use that word), his victory sent the clear signal that the Iraq war is wrong, that President Bush is wrong and that Lieberman is wrongness incarnate for not understanding said wrongness. Eli Pariser, executive director of’s political action committee, declared, “We regret that his stand on the fiasco in Iraq and embrace of the president have put him fundamentally at odds with Connecticut voters.”

Meanwhile, the folks most imbued with “Joementum” were Lieberman’s fans across the political aisle. Conservatives, particularly neoconservatives, were almost misty-eyed about Lieberman’s status as the leader of the “ ‘Scoop’ Jackson wing” of the Democratic Party (named after the late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a foreign policy hawk and domestic liberal who mentored many leading Republican neocons). Still, most recognized that Lieberman was the lone feather left intact on that largely bare, atrophied Jacksonian appendage. And Tuesday, voters tugged that feather loose.

But let’s be clear: Lieberman fascinates political junkies because he’s an outlier, like an albino rhino or the last of the Mohicans. And his loss doesn’t usher in a new reality so much as confirm the familiar one.

Sure, Lieberman’s 52 percent to 48 percent defeat was a very big deal politically. Looking at the dozen election cycles prior to 2006, political scientist Larry Sabato points out that among about 400 separate Senate races, only three incumbents were felled by primary challenges. That one of them was the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee just six years ago is amazing. But Lieberman’s loss is a bit less dramatic given the Democratic Party’s evolution over the last quarter of a century. Lieberman was always “sui generis” — a hawkish, culturally right-of-center Democrat from a blue state.

As many have noted, the only reason he could get away with his Bill Bennett-esque sermonizing is that he’s an Orthodox Jew. For many liberals, when white Christian politicians talk about God, it’s scary. When Jews do it, it’s quaint. No Christian national Democrat has talked so openly and sincerely about God and traditional values in decades (a point acknowledged by the Democrats’ so far insufficient efforts to re-energize their evangelical outreach). President Clinton came the closest, but liberals could overlook it because they suspected that he really didn’t mean it.

As for Lieberman’s hawkishness, it seemed anachronistic — and just plain odd. He supported Bush on the war more forcefully than many Republicans, justifying his refusal to criticize the president on grounds that politics should stop at the water’s edge, particularly during a war. That’s sweet, but rumors that such restraint is a respected American political tradition are greatly exaggerated. It was a lack of such restraint by Sen. George McGovern that created the latter-day Democratic Party, from which Lieberman sticks out, sore-thumb-like, today.

In 1972, McGovern transformed his party with, among other things, strict racial and gender quotas for convention delegates. He made his party antiwar, pro-abortion and thoroughly urban. He later acknowledged that things didn’t turn out as he hoped, quipping that he had opened the doors of the Democratic Party and “20 million people walked out.”

Among the emigrants were Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Paul Wolfowitz and other once-Democratic hawks that grew weary of a party that always “blamed America first,” as Kirkpatrick put it. When the neocons and the other 19.99 million people left McGovern’s party, Lieberman hung around. He was tolerated as exotic, and trotted out to win over swing voters and moderate Republicans.

Today, the Democratic Party is, simply, a McGovernite party. That is where the passion and the money are. But, nedrenaline addicts beware: That is not necessarily where the voters are. If the Connecticut contest was a referendum on the war, as many claim, it should tell us something that 48 percent of voters supported Lieberman. But obviously, the election wasn’t solely a referendum on the war because there’s no way 48 percent of Connecticut Democrats are pro-war.

What Lieberman’s showing really reveals are the limits of the supposedly “people-powered movement” behind Lamont. According to initial reports, Lieberman was strongest in Connecticut’s vestigial blue-collar areas. Lamont, a multimillionaire limousine liberal, represents the modern McGovernite rank-and-file of the Democratic Party. His most ardent supporters are more likely to carry a laptop than a lunch bucket, and they are still inclined to blame America first.

Though Lieberman may — and probably will be — re-elected as an independent, it’s sad news that he’s a pariah in his own party. But it’s hardly surprising.