Neoconservatives’ ‘Favorite Democrat’ Falls

Tuesday’s defeat in Connecticut’s primary election of President George W. Bush’s "favorite Democrat," Sen. Joe Lieberman, by a little-known antiwar candidate marks a major setback to neoconservative hopes of maintaining bipartisan support for the administration’s aggressive foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East.

Lieberman, the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in the 2000 campaign, received strong support from prominent neoconservatives, especially those who had led the campaign to invade Iraq, in the closing days of the primary battle, when it became clear that his challenger, Ned Lamont, was on the verge of victory.

"What drives so many Democrats crazy about Lieberman is not simply his support for the Iraq war," complained Weekly Standard editor and co-founder of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) William Kristol in response to polls last week showing that Lamont had pulled ahead of the three-term incumbent by a large margin. "It’s that he’s unashamedly pro-American."

In the event, Lieberman, who was backed in the primary by both Bill and Hillary Clinton, among other prominent Establishment Democrats, did not do as poorly as last week’s polls indicated, losing by a 48-52 percent margin.

The relative closeness of the final results clearly encouraged him to announce, even as he conceded the primary Tuesday night, that he will run as an independent against both Lamont and the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, in the general election in November.

Because Connecticut is strongly Democratic, Lieberman’s hopes rest on wooing a sufficient number of conservative Democrats and independents to his side to overcome the backing of the state and national party organizations for Lamont, a multimillionaire heir and businessman who had never before run for statewide office. Whether he can succeed – particularly in light of the strong anti-incumbent mood in the country – was a matter of much speculation here Wednesday.

Most analysts attributed Lamont’s remarkable victory – it marked only the third time in 25 years that an incumbent senator was defeated in a primary election – to a combination of grassroots Democrats’ revulsion toward Bush and the Iraq war, in particular, and Lieberman’s failure to pay attention to the concerns of his constituents back home.

"There was a personal sense among Connecticut Democrats that his national agenda is what matters to him and not Connecticut," a former state party chairman told the Washington Post earlier this week.

Nonetheless, Lamont’s victory was hailed by critics of both Lieberman and Bush’s foreign policy here as a potential watershed for both the Democratic Party and the antiwar movement.

"His victory represents a growing voter revolt against the failed policies and politics of the Bush administration and its congressional enablers, particularly the debacle in Iraq," according to Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, which represents more left-wing Democrats.

"After [Lieberman’s] defeat, Democrats will show more backbone in challenging the current disastrous course, and more Republicans will look for ways to distance themselves from the president," he wrote on TomPaine.com Wednesday.

In particular, the primary result is likely to pull several likely Democratic presidential aspirants. These include Sen. Clinton and Sen. Joseph Biden, who, while critical of the administration’s competence in Iraq, have steadfastly resisted setting a timetable for withdrawal.

They are also closer to the growing number of their congressional colleagues who favor a relatively quick pullout beginning no later than the end of this year – a position shared by 61 percent of the U.S. public, according to a CNN poll that was coincidentally released Wednesday.

As noted by former Republican Connecticut Sen. Lowell Weicker, who supported Lamont against Lieberman, the primary was a "referendum on the Iraq war – not just for Connecticut but for the whole country."

That is precisely the concern of neoconservatives like Kristol and other backers of the Iraq war who see in Lieberman’s defeat not only the possible collapse of dwindling public support for the war, but also the loss of the leading champion for their foreign policy ideas in the Democratic Party, which have been channeled mainly through the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) of which Lieberman is a longtime member and former chairman.

To them, Lieberman is the lineal descendant of Washington State Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, in whose office some of today’s most influential neoconservatives, including former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle; Bush’s top Middle East adviser, Elliot Abrams; Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney; and Kristol himself got their start.

Reliably liberal on civil and women’s rights and the environment, closely tied to conservative labor unions, Jackson, like Lieberman today, was the standard-bearer of what became the neoconservative wing of the Democratic Party – staunchly pro-Israel, a steadfast supporter of ever-higher defense budgets, and a strong believer in what was euphemistically called "peace through strength."

"Until yesterday, Senator Joseph Lieberman was the most prominent representative of the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party," wrote Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), a hard-line pro-Israel group for which Lieberman has served as a "distinguished adviser." "Today, that wing is down to its last few feathers."

On Middle East issues, Lieberman has long favored close alignment with Israel, although, unlike hard-line neoconservatives, he has leaned more to the Labor Party than to the right-wing Likud.

In April, he became the first prominent Democrat to voice support for an eventual U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Lieberman’s association with FDD was typical of a number of "bipartisan" organizations he helped create or sponsor that have been dominated by neoconservatives.

In 2002, for example, he became honorary co-chair of the Committee to Liberate Iraq (CLI), an advocacy group created just a few months before the U.S. invasion by Kristol, Perle, former CIA director James Woolsey, and Eliot Cohen, among other prominent neoconservatives. In 1998, he co-sponsored with Republican Sen. John McCain the Iraq Liberation Act, which made the ouster of Saddam Hussein official U.S. policy.

Since 2004, he has served as co-chair of the Committee on the Present Danger, another influential, mainly neoconservative group created, in Lieberman’s words, to "form a bipartisan citizens’ army, which is ready to fight a war of ideas against our Islamist terrorist enemies, and to send a clear signal that their strategy to deceive, demoralize, and divide America will not succeed." Other board members include Woolsey, Perle, Cohen, and Gaffney.

As the Iraq war became increasingly unpopular over the past year, Lieberman, to the frustration and fury of many of his party colleagues, served as the administration’s chief Democratic defender.

In a column he published in the Wall Street Journal last fall – and that was subsequently cited repeatedly by top administration officials, including Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney – he criticized fellow Democrats who favored withdrawal, arguing that "we undermine the president’s credibility at our nation’s peril."

Indeed, so favorably was Lieberman regarded in the White House that, as he was leaving the well of the House of Representatives after his 2005 State of the Union Address, Bush embraced Lieberman and planted a kiss on his cheek.

For most Connecticut Democrats, it turned out to be the kiss of death.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.