I’m coming to the subject of Lieberman’s loss in Tuesday’s primary quite late, largely because I am so deeply conflicted on the subject. On the one hand, Lieberman is generally closer to me on many subjects, especially social issues, than most Democrats are. There was a time when I thought he was a very useful force in the party. But my respect for him has gradually eroded over the last few years. The beginning of the “end of the affair” came when I went to a small meeting of New Hampshire activists in 2003, when his campaign was just getting going. I was amazed at how poorly thought-through his campaign was, that he genuinely lacked an issue that defined what he wanted to do as a Democrat–as opposed to issues that marked him off from the rest of the party. I sensed complacency, as if his place on the 2000 ticket made him the presumptive nominee. Clinton, of course, had a number of issues that defined him as a “New Democrat,” but these were accompanied by even more issues that were real, core Democratic issues. Lieberman, I thought, was caught in what we might call a hyper-New Democratic pathology.
In a very perceptive discussion of Lieberman over in the very meaty Balkinization blog, Mark Graber gets to the core of the problem. Lieberman’s appeal was supposed to be that he represented a force against political polarization, but as Mark notes, Joe was singularly ineffective at actually constructing anything like a durable moderate coalition in the Senate. In the absence of such a coalition, the only alternative strategy for moderation was obstructionism–organizing Democrats to stop the Republicans dead in their tracks, to throw sand in their machine’s gears, to keep them from pushing American politics any further to the right. That is, Lieberman needed to be MORE of a partisan in order to keep American politics from being less polarized. As Mark notes, Lieberman’s moderate instincts kept him from doing this. And this is a genuine, unforgivable failing, because his well-earned reputation would have legitimated such an obstructionism-for-moderation’s-sake strategy.
So, where do we go from here? I despise Lamont with every shred of my being–he represents everything I find distasteful in my own party, and he defines the term lightweight. On the other hand, I am a partisan, in both senses of the word: I believe that parties should mediate access to the general election ballot, and I am a Democrat. So I find the idea of someone running for office as an independent after having lost the primary to be genuinely a violation of how the game is supposed to be played. Had the primary been a typically low-turnout affair, I might have found Lieberman’s argument that we shouldn’t let a small, unrepresentative group of wingnuts determine who the next Senator should be plausible. But the primary turnout was remarkably high, possibly unprecedented. And Lieberman himself left almost two million dollars on the table, money that, given the narrow result, could have made the difference. Is there any doubt that Joe failed to spend this money (on a turnout effort that his campaign admitted it dropped at the last minute) because he was hoarding cash for an independent run?
I’d be interested in suggestions from anyone else who is generally in my position as to what the right thing to do is under these circumstances. I’ll blog again in a few days, pulling together our readers’ feedback.