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Problem-Solving Trumps Polarization

By Dan Gerstein

After this fall's power-shifting election, it was fascinating for me, as a strategist for Joe Lieberman's victorious Senate campaign, to watch Democrats struggle to fit the square political peg of the Lieberman comeback into the round electoral hole of the Democratic takeover. Here you had a pro-war, 18- year incumbent, rejected by his own party in the Connecticut primary, running as an independent with an ostensibly anti-war, pro-change, deep-blue electorate -- and winning the rematch against his primary opponent by a resounding 10 percentage points.

Judging from the post-mortems that emerged, most Democrats opted for rationalizing over reconciling. They wrote off Lieberman's incongruous victory over Ned Lamont as a tactical aberration. The common narrative is that the Lieberman campaign was more disciplined and better run, that the Lamont campaign made a lot of rookie mistakes, and that the incumbent ultimately succeeded by exploiting the experience gap and the absence of a strong Republican challenger.

This assessment, while technically accurate as far as it goes, is wholly incomplete and fundamentally flawed. It glosses over the real reason the veteran senator was able to defy the odds and the oddities of this most unusual race. Moreover, by missing the larger point, our party may be missing a critical opportunity to learn from this bruising, yet illuminating, experience. If applied properly, the lessons from this race could help the Democrats become a long-term majority party again.

From my perspective, what purportedly started as a revolution -- the blog-driven Lamont uprising -- turned out to be a revelation about the rival forces vying to shape the party's direction in the post-Clinton, post-Bush era. This clash, which has been brewing for the past six years, as Democrats have been stewing over two straight presidential losses, is not ideological so much as tonal and, in some respects, temperamental. It is, in essence, a fight over how we fight politically, a struggle between two starkly different approaches to campaigning and governing.

On the one side stands what might be called the school of polarization. The Democrats in this camp have been radicalized by their anger at President Bush's policies and leadership, which they tend to view as venal and illegitimate. They believe that the Democratic leadership in Washington has been far too accommodating -- some would say feeble -- in its opposition, and that the only way to win electorally and legislatively is to fight ire with ire.

These polarized Democrats, who fueled the rise of Lamont's candidacy, have gone past disagreeing with the Republicans, to despising them. They no longer see Republicans as the opposition, but as the enemy. And they believe that the end of defeating this enemy justifies just about any means.

On the other side stands the school of problem-solving. The Democrats in this camp are also deeply troubled by the direction of the country under Bush and strongly disagree with most of his policies. But they don't believe the way to move the country forward -- or to earn the voters' trust -- is simply to repackage the hard partisanship and divisiveness of the Bush years in blue wrapping.

Instead, these problem-solving Democrats, who rallied to Lieberman's side in the general election, subscribe to the politics of results. They believe that, in a closely divided and increasingly independent-minded electorate, the best strategy for winning elections is to offer winning ideas. That means showing the American people that we not only relate to the challenges they face, but we have effective plans for meeting them.

That is ultimately what made Round Two of the Lieberman-Lamont face-off so significant -- it provided the party with a nearly pure real-world test of these two competing approaches. Two Democrats, who, outside of Iraq, were actually pretty close to each other on most issues, ran in a state that reliably votes Democratic in national elections but where independents are the biggest voting bloc. They, in turn, were competing against a non-viable Republican candidate.

Of course, the Lamont partisans and the bloggers who wanted to purge Lieberman from the party will dispute that characterization. But once you cut through all the hyperbole and misinformation, it is clear that Lieberman was being targeted for expulsion not as a matter of policy, but of purity. He did not share the polarized Democrats' hatred and contempt for Bush and the Republican leadership, and he committed the unpardonable sin of actually working with the other side on occasion.

A perfect example is Social Security. It did not matter that Lieberman has consistently opposed Social Security privatization during the Bush era. He was branded a sellout by the polarizers, because, 10 years earlier, he initially expressed some intellectual openness to the idea before rejecting it, because he would not brand Bush as evil incarnate for proposing privatization, and because he dared to acknowledge that the Social Security program was unsustainable over the long term without serious reforms.

Smear campaign. Regardless, the Lamont campaign effectively exploited this warped perception of Lieberman as Bush cheerleader and managed to turn the Democratic primary into a referendum on Bush, Iraq, and Lieberman's Democratic credentials. The Lamont team did so, in large part, by building on the sustained smear campaign the leading liberal blogs had been running against Lieberman for the previous year. They repeatedly distorted Lieberman's record with ruthless discipline and twisted his statements about the war beyond all recognition.

Our campaign made things a lot easier for Lamont by failing to aggressively counter his team's many distortions and lies. That explains why, by the end of the primary campaign, many Democrats wrongly believed that Lieberman was pro-privatization and anti-choice, and even worse, that he had attacked Democrats who criticized the war or the president as unpatriotic. It also helps explain why, with help from the many Democrats who simply lodged a protest vote against the Iraq war, Lamont was able to squeeze out a narrow 3.5 percentage-point win in the August primary.

Once the primary was over, the Lieberman campaign fully expected Lamont to follow the normal rules of politics and adapt his strategy and broaden his message for a general election audience. After all, Democrats comprised only 34 percent of the vote in the general election -- 44 percent were independents and 21 percent were Republicans.

Instead, still stuck in their blogospheric echo chamber, the Lamont campaign chose to re-run the primary and speak almost exclusively to Democrats. We marveled at how their schedule was still filled with stops at Democratic town committees and college campuses -- and how they continued to cast the race in narrowly partisan terms.

Particularly telling was a bizarre television ad Lamont aired in September called "Turncoat." The ad attacked Lieberman for choosing to run as an independent. It was so bad -- reinforcing just what a negative, partisan campaign Lamont was running -- that we actually sent Lamont's campaign manager a small contribution to help keep the spot on the air.

Our campaign took a 180-degree different approach, one that played to Lieberman's natural strengths and magnified the weaknesses of Lamont's polarizing strategy. We spoke to the entire universe of voters, with a particular focus on those who were turned off by the name-calling and game-playing and the partisan gridlock in Washington. We clearly connected Lieberman's extensive record of accomplishment for the state to his unique ability to rise above politics and work with Republicans to solve people's problems. And perhaps most important, we made a compelling case that Lamont's obvious inexperience and hard partisanship would hurt Connecticut.

Our signature ad, called "Blackboard," was a perfect foil to the relentlessly negative and overly snarky spots with which Lamont kept hammering us. It featured a typical school blackboard set against a clean white backdrop, with the words "Democrats" and "Republicans" written on it and separated by a line. The narrator asked, "How do you keep our nation secure? How do you provide better health care for our children? How do you save 31,000 jobs at the New London sub base?" Lieberman then walked up to the blackboard, erased the line, and said, "By reaching across party lines and standing up for what's right." This ad brilliantly distilled the essence of Lieberman's appeal -- and the difference between the two candidates.

The defining moment of the general election may have been primary night itself. That's when Lamont introduced himself to the rest of the state by giving a milquetoast reiteration of his primary stump speech -- and allowed himself to be flanked by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, two of the more divisive figures in American politics. Lieberman, on the other hand, stunned the political world by giving a dynamic, forceful non-concession speech, in which he deftly framed the race to come and counter-intuitively seized the mantle of change agent.

"I expect my opponent will continue to do in the general election what he did in the primary. Polarization instead of problem solving. Insults instead of ideas. In other words, more of the same old partisan politics that have broken our government in Washington. I will continue to offer a different path forward. I got into public service to find solutions, not to point fingers. To unite, not divide. To lift people up, not tear them down. To make my community and country a better place to live and work, not a bitter one. ..."

With that speech, and all the statements, press conferences, and ads that followed, Lieberman boiled his message down to three words that broadly resonated with mainstream voters: People, not politics.

Lieberman talked in plain terms about what he had done for the people of Connecticut in the past six years by working across party lines. Just as important, he talked about what he could do for them in the next six years by fixing Washington and getting past politics as usual.

In contrast, when Ned Lamont talked about change, it was almost always in the context of politics, not people. He spent most of his time and money blaming Joe Lieberman for just about every societal ill short of the Yankees losing in the playoffs, while telling voters next to nothing about how he would solve those problems.

When Lamont's polarizing strategy failed to sway the independent voters he needed, his campaign and its blogger boosters went even deeper off the deep end. They sent out mailers attacking Lieberman for being "George Bush's point man on Social Security privatization" -- one of the more brazen lies I have ever seen in a campaign for high office. They absurdly accused Lieberman of taking bribes from energy lobbyists in exchange for his vote on the energy bill, as well as creating a campaign slush fund to buy votes. And they aggressively peddled an Internet ad morphing Joe Lieberman into Richard Nixon, accusing him of engaging in "Nixonian deception" on Iraq.

Blinded by rage. If there was one thing that the people of Connecticut knew about Joe Lieberman after 24 years in statewide office, it was that they could trust him. But the bizarre tactics of the people driving the Lamont bus suggest that they were so blinded by their rage -- against Bush, the war, and Lieberman -- that they would have preferred to run over their opponent rather than win the race.

In mid-October, right before a run of three statewide debates, the Lamont campaign lost its credibility for good. At an endorsement press conference, a handful of minor black political activists accused Lieberman of fabricating his involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Lamont stood by and did not say a word to object. Henry Parker, a former state treasurer, handed out a flyer listing the scurrilous charges and bearing the line: "Paid for by Ned Lamont for Senate."

Lieberman quickly denounced the attack, recounted his civil rights record in detail, and demanded an apology. The Lamont camp, incredibly, denied having anything to do with the flyer, despite the fact that it plainly said, "Paid for by Ned Lamont for Senate." Lamont's team hated Lieberman so much they literally couldn't even see straight.

That, in the end, is how Lieberman was able to become Lazarus, despite the fact that a clear majority of the Connecticut electorate opposed the war. We ran a campaign for all voters and about all voters. They waged a vendetta on behalf of the angriest few. We focused on getting things done, through experience and bipartisanship. They focused on getting back at the other side, through the same divisive and destructive tactics they condemned when used against them. We recognized that the fastest growing "party" in the state was independent voters who had rejected both parties, and that two-thirds of all voters said Iraq was not their top concern. They saw those voters who did not share their world view, especially the Republicans, as illegitimate or stupid -- or both.

The Election Day exit polls said it all. They confirmed that Lamont's partisan, polarizing strategy failed to drive down Lieberman's Democratic vote. He won 33 percent of the Democrats, almost the same percentage he had gotten in the first major poll nine days after the primary. The exits also confirmed that our broad-based, problem-solver strategy succeeded where it mattered most -- with unaffiliated voters. We won by 19 points among independents -- the exact same margin by which Democrats won the votes of independents nationally. Finally, the polls highlighted the consistency of our appeal across not just party lines but also religious lines. We won among Jews and Catholics, which we expected, but also among Protestants. The only religious groups Lieberman lost were "other" and "none."

More than anything else, Lieberman's victory showed us the limits of polarizing politics. After all, the fastest growing party in America, not just in Connecticut, is no party. The only way Democrats are going to win over those independent thinking and increasingly anti-partisan voters, which is essential to winning back the White House and building a sustainable majority, is to resist the pressure of the polarizers in our party to run more Lamont-style campaigns. What works, as Joe Lieberman clearly demonstrated this fall, is the politics of results.

Blueprint Magazine


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