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Lieberman Not The Dems' Only Problem

This article was written by Terence Samuel.
This is clearly a honey-hued season for Democrats. Despite recent improvements in President Bush's approval numbers, much of the recent polling shows Democrats with huge advantages going into the fall campaign. And the confidence is showing: Recently Senate Democratic operatives sent out a compilation of polls showing their candidates leading in all of the contested Senate races except Arizona and Tennessee, and even there, they had Memphis Democrat Harold Ford in a dead heat with each of the possible GOP contenders. They were looking at huge leads in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That Arizona is in play at all is a kind of win.

And another sure sign of how frisky Democrats are feeling is the way they are treating Joe Lieberman. Lieberman, who has been a strong supporter of Bush's Iraq adventures, has angered the party faithful, who have now cast him as a totemic example of why the party has been unable to challenge the administration on its greatest vulnerability, the war in Iraq.

So Lieberman, faced with a big-money primary challenge from businessman Ned Lamont, is looking at a beat-down from his own party. But if Democrats think Joe Lieberman is their problem, they have, once again, misjudged the circumstances. The August 8 Connecticut primary has become something of a political genetic test for any Democrat thinking about running in 2008: To be or not to be with Lieberman is a question anyone who wants to be president must answer for the party's agitated anti-war base.

John Kerry is not. Hillary Clinton is with him, at least until he loses the primary, then, she says, he's on his own. There are varying shades of pro/anti-Lieberman hedging up and down the party, but no matter how wrong you think Lieberman is on Iraq, he has a huge advantage in being clear about his position.

Democrats are now in an excellent position to reprise their calamitous presidential campaign of 2004. Back in 2004, after a heady flirtation with a guy who came to be defined as an anti-war candidate, Democrats nominated someone who was so completely compromised in his positions on the war that he had no credibility to attack President Bush on the central issue of the campaign: John Kerry could never adequately explain why he voted to allow a war that he would ultimately oppose.

The American people are now completely convinced that the war is a disaster, but for all the Democrats running for president — except Russ Feingold — the challenge in 2008 will be the same as it was four years earlier. Clinton, the front-runner, shares the administration's view that a deadline or timetable for withdrawal is a bad and dangerous idea. She is basically sticking with the idea that her vote in 2002 was the correct thing to do. Back then she said:

The facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt. Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who has tortured and killed his own people, even his own family members, to maintain his iron grip on power.

Even then, there was a lot of doubt about the "facts" in question. Now there are infinitely more.

So the anti-war forces can scapegoat Joe Lieberman all they want, but they don't have a lot of heroes to look to as the presidential contenders line up. Defeating Lieberman is going to feel good for a lot of people, but beating him will come at some cost: First, he has already promised to run as an independent, making it more difficult for the Democrats to win that seat. But more importantly, defeating Lieberman will transform the war as a campaign issue. It will move from being an "effectiveness and competence" issue that the President and Republicans must defend and explain to serving as a political litmus test for Democrats.

So what to do now?

First, all the Democrats who voted for the war and are now against it better come up with an explanation for what changed their minds. Supporting the war but faulting the execution is not going to work this time. I say this on the strength of the evidence that it didn't work the last time. In a very real way those Democrats have to do what they have been calling on the White House to do — admit they made a mistake. Kerry has made this journey: "It's not enough to argue with the logistics or to argue about the details," he said. "... It is essential to acknowledge that the war itself was a mistake. ... It was wrong, and I was wrong to vote for that Iraqi war resolution."

And then they must learn how to have two separate conversations at the same time: The need to address the urgent and complex questions about our current and future engagement in Iraq does not invalidate the equally important, if less urgent, questions about how and why we got into Iraq in the first place. And unless Democrats convincingly confront those questions, sooner rather than later, the happy season will end.

By Terence Samuel
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved