Sen. Joe Lieberman‘s August 8 defeat in Connecticut’s Democratic primary by a little-known anti-war candidate marks a major setback to neoconservative hopes of maintaining “bipartisan” support for the Bush administration’s aggressive foreign policies, particularly in the Middle East.
Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, received strong support from prominent neoconservatives-especially those who had led the push to invade Iraq-in the closing days of his primary battle, when it became clear that 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 Project for the New American Century cofounder William Kristol. “It’s that he’s unashamedly pro-American.”
Lieberman, who was backed in the primary by both Bill and Sen. Hillary Clinton, among other prominent establishment Democrats, did not do as poorly as polls predicted, losing to Lamont by a 48-52% margin.
That relatively narrow margin of defeat clearly encouraged him to announce that he plans to run as an Independent against Lamont and the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, in November’s general election.
Connecticut is strongly Democratic, and 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 has never before run for statewide office. Whether Lieberman can succeed-particularly in light of the strong anti-incumbent mood in the country-is a matter of much speculation.
Most analysts attributed Lamont’s remarkable victory-it marked only the third time in 25 years that a challenger defeated an incumbent senator in a primary election-to a combination of grassroots Democrats’ revulsion toward President George W. Bush and the Iraq War and Lieberman’s failure to pay attention to his constituents’ concerns.
“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 as a potential watershed for both the Democratic Party and the anti-war movement.
“[Lamont’s] 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, codirector of the Campaign for America’s Future, which works to advance a left-leaning agenda.
“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 on August 9.
In particular, Lieberman’s defeat is likely to pull several leading Democrats-including Senators Clinton and Joseph Biden, both presidential aspirants who have long resisted setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq-closer to the growing number of their congressional colleagues who favor a relatively quick pullout beginning no later than the end of 2006. According to a CNN poll released on Wednesday, 61% of U.S. voters also support that position.
As noted by former Connecticut Republican 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. Such ideas have been channeled mainly through the Democratic Leadership Council, 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 got their start, including former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, Bush’s top Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams, Center for Security Policy President Frank Gaffney, as well as Kristol.
Reliably liberal on civil and women’s rights and on the environment and 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, Sen. 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 hardline pro-Israel group for which Lieberman has served as a “distinguished adviser.” May continued: “Today, that wing is down to its last few feathers.”
On Middle East issues, Lieberman has long favored close alignment with Israel, although, unlike hardline neoconservatives, he has leaned more toward 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 is 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 for the Liberation of Iraq , 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 cosponsored with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) the Iraq Liberation Act, which made the ouster of Saddam Hussein official U.S. policy.
Since 2004, Lieberman 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 published in the Wall Street Journal last fall that was subsequently cited repeatedly by top administration officials, including Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Lieberman 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 Bush departed after giving his 2005 State of the Union Address, he embraced Lieberman, planting a friendly kiss on his cheek. For Lieberman, taunted by critics in recent years as “Bush’s favorite Democrat,” it may have been the political kiss of death.
Jim Lobe is a Right Web contributing writer and the Washington, DC bureau chief for the Inter Press Service, which published a version of this article.