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Lieberman vs. Lamont: The Perils of Partisanship

By Ryan Sager

Sen. Joe Lieberman thinks he lost last night's Democratic primary because of "partisanship." It's an odd charge to throw around in a party primary -- both candidates were, after all, Democrats -- but it's also not an insane one. Lieberman didn't lose because he's not enough of a Democrat, of course (in fact, he's a very reliable one); he lost because he's not the right kind of Democrat.

Specifically, he's not the kind who hates Republicans with every fiber of his being. He's not the kind who will fling everything at the opposition, just to see what sticks. And he's not the kind who will do anything for his party, regardless of the effect on his country. In other words, he fancies himself more of a statesman than a politician -- and given the Democrats' fortunes at the polls in recent years, many on the netroots Left would prefer the latter to the former.

To the casual observer, the logic of the Kos crowd taking on Joe Lieberman this year would seem to defy reason. For the first time since the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, the Democrats have an excellent shot at taking back the House and an outside chance of taking back the Senate. Polls show voters not just mad at Republicans or mad at Congress generally, but actually ready to throw out incumbents on scale not seen for more than a decade. Opposition to the Iraq war has the Left energized, gas prices have swing voters in a foul mood, and immigration has the GOP base split. Thus, the netroots' No. 1 priority is: replacing a solid Democratic senator with a different Democrat?

Putting aside the particulars of Joe Lieberman, this just sounds insane. There are House and Senate seats held by Republicans that the netroots activists could be flooding with money and volunteered man hours. There are at least two House seats in Connecticut (held by Republicans Chris Shays and Rob Simmons) where the money could be more logically spent. There's Sen. Rick Santorum to take down in Pennsylvania. There's Sen. Conrad Burns in Montana in a close race against another netroots favorite, Jon Tester.

Yet, somehow, Lieberman was priority No. 1. And if Lieberman pursues the independent bid he seems 100 percent committed to pursuing, Democrats will spend even more time and money fighting one of their own as November approaches.

Why? Lieberman has the answer: partisanship.

"The old politics of partisan polarization won today," Lieberman said in his concession/announcement speech. It's a politics, he said, that values insults over ideas, that labels every compromise a surrender, that calls every disagreement disloyalty.

That anger, in case you missed it, was directed at the Left, not the Right. It's the Left that has built an entire primary campaign on an image of President Bush kissing Lieberman. It's the Left that calls Lieberman a Republican "enabler" for seeking common ground on important legislation. It's the Left that calls Lieberman a "traitor" for voting his conscience on Iraq and calling for unity during wartime.

Yet, there's a logic to the Left's illogic in attacking Lieberman. The 2006 midterms, to the netroots, are essentially irrelevant. In fact, a victory for the Democrats in 2006 is the worst thing that could possibly happen to the Kos crowd. They have yet to truly "crash the gates" and take over the Democratic Party -- thus, a victory helmed by the hated "Democratic establishment" this year would render the Kossacks irrelevant.

Their goal, for now, is simply to be feared in the Democratic primary process. In that sense, last night's Lamont victory is mission (almost) accomplished. Writing ahead of Lamont's victory, liberal blogger David Sirota wrote that a five-point margin over Lieberman might make "Democratic insiders realize their fight against ordinary citizens is a losing battle and realize their careers are about to be cut short lest they change their ways." Thanks to such a realization, he wrote, the Democratic Party might "actually start winning national elections for the first time in a generation."

That's one argument. It assumes, however, that the problem with the Democratic Party is that it has not been defeatist enough on the Iraq war, that is has not pushed hard enough for an ever-increasing minimum wage, and that it has not pushed hard enough for socialized medicine. Self-styled "progressives" no doubt believe this to be the case.

There is, however, another argument. That argument holds that the two major impediments to Democratic victory have been: 1) the party's dovishness and softness in the War on Terror, and 2) the party's image as beholden to special interests such as labor unions and the ACLU.

The left-wing, netroots, progressive movement -- really, whatever they want to call themselves -- may be right that they can take over the Democratic Party and build a new coalition that will grow up someday and run the country. But theirs is a long-term project, to be measured in decades, not years.

In the meantime, for a group ostensibly so intent on partisan combat, they've just handed the GOP a tremendous victory as regards 2006. Are there any pictures out there of Lamont kissing Karl Rove? It'd make a hell of a campaign ad for Joe Lieberman as he gets acclimated to life as an "independent Democrat."

Ryan Sager (rhsager.com) is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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