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Lamont's Loss to Lieberman Was A Progressive Gain

Voters in Connecticut in the end went for Joe Lieberman. But Ned Lamont's insurgent anti-war campaign was a step forward for progressive forces building for the future.
 
 
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It was raining hard when I returned my rental car at Hartford's Bradley International Airport on Wednesday -- the weather was not helping to raise my spirits from the night before. I had been working as a strategist and rapid response staffer for Ned Lamont's Senate campaign against pro-war incumbent Joe Lieberman, and we had just lost the general election by 10 points. Needless to say, I wasn't happy. But my mood lifted when the middle-aged woman at the Avis counter said, "I voted for him."

She was pointing at the Lamont for Senate button still pinned to my rumpled jacket lapel. During a day where I, like thousands of others in Connecticut, were looking for answers, her simple statement -- "I voted for him" -- was a much-needed reminder to me that we had done something very profound.

"I wish he would have won," she went on. "I just don't get why he lost."

A lot of people don't get why Ned Lamont lost and Sen. Joe Lieberman (CFL-Conn.) won. But over the coming weeks and months, both the right and left will try to explain Lamont's high-profile loss in ways that are advantageous to each side. Already, two major narratives on what happened have emerged -- both of which conflict with each other, both of which are wrong, and both of which will be debunked right here, right now.

The Two Prevalent Narratives

The first storyline comes from Republicans and from the ashes of what remains of the "New Democrat" faction that, in the wake of this week's election, is clearly a thin shadow of its formerly relevant self. These folks assert that Lamont lost because his platform challenging the Iraq War made him look "weak" to voters. This is a riff off both Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman's claims that anyone who opposes the Iraq War is a terrorist sympathizer.

They will also say that Lamont getting only 40 percent of the vote proves that those bloggers, activists and grassroots organizers who built the foundation of Lamont's campaign have once and for all proven they are unable to win elections, and that, additionally, Lieberman's victory was an electoral vindication of Washington's out-of-the-center definition of "centrism."

No doubt, we will soon hear the argument that the challenge to Lieberman was a mistake from the get-go, because now, with the Senate so evenly divided, Lieberman is supposedly more powerful than ever.

On the other side will be criticism from those on the left who claim that Lamont, far from presenting himself like a terrorist appeaser as the right suggests, instead supposedly stopped talking about the war until the last week of the campaign, thus stripping himself of the major issue that had propelled his candidacy. Some have publicly asserted that, after the primary, the campaign was hijacked by Washington insiders who, with smarmy D.C.-style caution, manipulated Lamont into going silent on the war.

So to review -- one side will say Lamont lost because he talked only about the war and therefore alienated a mythical, pro-war "center" even though polls show most Americans oppose the Iraq War. The other side will say he lost because he stopped talking about the war entirely.

What Really Happened

Ned Lamont lost by 10 points. Such a margin indicates that something structural was happening that could not have been addressed by any of the tactical or rhetorical tweaks either side says made the difference. Some of those structural problems were unique to this particular race, some were more generic, but together, they steepened the climb for Lamont in ways that made victory almost impossible. The challenges included:

  • Entrenched incumbency: Lamont was attempting something no one other than Paul Wellstone has done in the modern political era: defeat a statewide incumbent as a candidate who has never run for major office before. And Lieberman was no regular incumbent -- this was a man presenting himself as a hybrid of both parties, and a 36-year political institution in Connecticut -- the most careerist of career politicians.
  • Abandonment of the Democratic nominee by the Democratic Party: The story of the national Democratic Party's abandonment of Lamont will likely be written more fully in the coming weeks, with explanations of both how this happened and even more importantly, why. But the broad strokes are obvious: Almost every major figure in national Democratic politics save John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Wes Clark and John Edwards refused to seriously help the Lamont campaign. We saw this coming when, right after Lieberman lost the primary, he was welcomed with a standing ovation back to the Senate club by his Democratic colleagues. Subsequently, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid indicated that Lieberman's seniority would be preserved if he won reelection, despite the fact that he officially abandoned the party. To understand how much this abandonment affected the race, consider that Lieberman bragged in October to the Associated Press that he was actively using Reid's promise of seniority to promote his key "experience and seniority" argument -- and that such an argument was helping him win over voters. On Election Day, Lieberman appeared on Fox News to thank the national Democratic Party for refusing to help Lamont, the Democratic nominee.
  • Refusal by outside groups or lawmakers to serve as surrogates for Lamont: Lieberman had, among others, right-wing radio, the national Republican Party, and the President and Vice President of the United States repeatedly attacking Lamont on his behalf. He also had various Republican and Democratic senators at his side, lending credibility to all of his negative attacks on Lamont, and more generally to the legitimacy of his general election candidacy that was, at heart, an affront to the democratic primary process.

    Lamont, by contrast, had none of that. It wasn't just that people like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former President Bill Clinton refused to campaign for Lamont even though they had both whispered official endorsements of him. It was that most of those who did nominally help the campaign only agreed to voice positive statements about Lamont, but refused to forcefully take on Lieberman for attacking the Democratic Party or violating campaign finance disclosure laws. Take, for instance, the behavior of the major government watchdog groups. Except for Public Campaign Action Fund, not one of them made a peep after the New Haven Register exposed Lieberman for abusing campaign finance law to create an illegal $380,000 slush fund. Similarly, other than Wes Clark who filmed an ad going after Lieberman by name or Kerry who issued a press release nailing Lieberman for his Iraq position, not one national surrogate really went after the incumbent senator.

  • The weakest Republican nominee in recent Connecticut history: Republican Senate nominee Alan Schlesinger was abandoned by state and national Republicans, and ended up being the weakest GOP candidate in the state's recent history. Remember, for instance, that corrupt-mayor-turned-convicted-pedophile Phil Giordano (R-CT) got 35 percent off Lieberman in 2000. Whether that's his fault or not is not important -- but his weakness allowed Lieberman to simultaneously be the de facto Republican nominee while also portraying himself as a quasi-Democrat. He billed himself simultaneously as a pro-war Republican and an anti-war Democrat, a pro-Bush-Energy Bill Republican, and a pro-environment Democrat, a pro-lobbyist Republican and an anti-corruption Democrat. And other than the debates that many voters don't even watch, Lieberman never had either a rhetorical or electoral challenge by the Republican candidate on any of these issues.
  • An opponent willing to deny every single major fact about his own record: Politicians lying to voters is nothing new. But few have so brazenly denied so broadly their own record as Lieberman did. Here was the chief apologist for the Iraq War blanketing the state with claims that "no one wants to end the war more than I do." Here was the only New England Democrat to vote for the Energy Bill claiming that the bill did not strip Connecticut of its power to protect Long Island Sound -- even though he had previously admitted as much. Here was a candidate claiming he wanted to crackdown on lobbying abuses, even as he had voted against lobbyist gift bans and even as he was relying on lobbyist fundraisers to finance his campaign. The list was never-ending, and the strategy was deliberate.

    People don't want to vote against someone they've been supporting for 18 years because voting against that person is an inherent admission that one's past support was misguided. Lieberman understood this, and in making statements diverging from his actual record, he threw voters a bone designed to confuse them into thinking that actually, he wasn't really as disconnected from the majority of the public as his record indicated. Some would say Lieberman is a brilliant politician. But political brilliance is convincing others to adopt a position you have -- not changing positions on a dime. The less principle a political leader has, the less brilliance it takes to win elections. Lieberman used not brilliance, but the most cynical brand of politics: confuse and conquer.

This is not to suggest in any way that we ran a perfect campaign, and that we, the campaign team, have no culpability. We did not run a perfect campaign. Immediately after the primary, we could have, for instance, done a better job of embarrassing Lieberman for having the nerve to ignore a taxpayer-funded democratic election and exploit a legal loophole for his own personal gain. The campaign made a strategic error in trusting the Chuck Schumers of the world when they told us not to hammer Lieberman, because they were working to politely ease him out of the race. Those efforts never happened because, as we saw, Senate Democrats really had no interest in getting him out.

I, like everyone on the campaign, feel a sense of personal responsibility for letting Lamont and the grassroots down with this loss. But I feel that responsibility at the same time I have no regrets. While we weren't perfect, we were damn good in the face of nearly impossible structural challenges.

We were landing free media hits on Lieberman that were substantive and issue-based, and our ads backed up those hits. Our field operation under Connecticut grassroots gurus Tom Swan and John Murphy was second-to-none, and our advance operation down the stretch was run with what the New York Times labeled "military precision." Meanwhile, the one Washington consultant who played any significant role in the race -- Kennedy aide Stephanie Cutter -- didn't weaken or water down Lamont's Iraq position. On the contrary, she whittled it to a sharper spear than even Lamont's pre-primary Iraq message.

But what about the specific charges? Is the major criticism of the race right or wrong? No, and here's why.

Why the Specific Criticisms Are Off Base

The idea that we somehow abandoned the Iraq message after the primary is a fairly tale. Yes, we broadened the message after the primary, with Lamont giving speeches on health care, economic development, energy and education. But the campaign never, ever got away from Iraq. Observers outside of Connecticut will cite a decrease in the media stories about Lamont and the war during the late summer and early fall -- but that brings up a famous parable: If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Similarly, if a candidate keeps talking about an issue and the media refuses to cover it because reporters believe it is "old news," can that candidate be faulted for not talking about the issue? I would say no. Our ads always focused on Iraq, Lamont always talked about the war and the campaign held war-focused events up until the last day. Though some armchair quarterbacks on the left don't want to acknowledge these facts, they are the facts.

The idea that running the entire primary was a mistake because Lieberman is supposedly more powerful now is laughable. Lieberman is a politician who drew most of his power not from his committee assignments or legislative prowess, but from his position as a media-ordained spokesman for the Democratic Party who had the "conscience" to attack Democrats with Republican talking points. This is why President Bush and Vice President Cheney so aggressively backed Lieberman. He wasn't any old Iraq War promoter, he was crucial to pro-war conservatives because he was seen as a Democratic mouthpiece pushing the war and undermining the most credible war critics on the left.

Now, after the primary, Lieberman does not have this special platform anymore. He can never again purport to speak for the Democratic Party, because he no longer even has a nominal claim to actually being a Democrat. He officially left the Democratic Party when he ran under his own party in the general election, and his candidacy relied primarily on Republican votes, money and institutional support. That means while he can still be a gadfly and still draw attention to himself, his days of being able to fundamentally damage the image of the national Democratic Party are over.

The senator's post-election anger suggests he intimately understands just how much power and credibility he has lost. His victory speeches on election night and the day after were laced with rage. Far from being magnanimous or humble, he used the occasion to attack the majority of Connecticut voters who voted against him as representing the "extreme." He then issued the political equivalent of pro-wrestler threats, reiterating to Democrats that he will now be even more "independent" (read: Republican) than ever. His campaign website now features one giant link across the top of the page -- a link to a blogged screed by former Christian Coalition official Marshall Wittman that breathlessly attacks progressives and bloggers for having the nerve to challenge Lieberman. (What a gracious winner you are Joe -- really, you stay classy Joe Lieberman.)

But beyond stripping one man of the platform through which he preens his vanity and derives his power, the primary more importantly sent a message to other Democrats that undermining the progressive cause carries a price. The primary also served to frame the debate on the most pressing national security issue in a generation to the point where Lieberman, one of the nation's chief war apologists, was relegated to campaigning across Connecticut saying "no one wants to bring the troops home more than me."

The concept that Lieberman's victory represents the triumph of faux "centrism" and a rebuke of the anti-Iraq-War movement is so silly it's hard to treat it seriously, especially in the face of red-state victories by war critics like Sherrod Brown, Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester, and in light of Rahm "Candidates Shouldn't Talk About the War At All" Emanuel delivering an election-night victory speech acknowledging that antipathy to the war was the central reason Democrats won. As the Associated Press confirms this week, Lieberman's margin was provided by a segment of voters who are strongly against the war, but who (wrongly) believed Lieberman is strongly against the war.

Their misperception was no accident. Immediately after the primary, Lieberman unleashed an ad campaign to portray himself as anti-war, airing an ad where he says to the camera "I want to help end the war in Iraq." He made these claims even as he attacked all proposals to end the war. As historian Rick Perlstein noted in In These Times , this was reminiscent of Richard Nixon's similar campaign in 1969 when he delivered a national address claiming "I want to end the war" in Vietnam, just as he was intensifying the war.

Thus, Lieberman won the election not by defending the Iraq War, but by successfully convincing a key segment of voters that he was anti-war. That is, he won not by embracing faux "centrism" but by pretending to be a progressive.

For its part, the Lamont campaign worked overtime to try to debunk Lieberman's confusion campaign. Our internal polling showed that somewhere between 12 and 15 percent of the population said they simultaneously opposed the war and supported Lieberman's position on the war -- a signal that Lieberman's confusion campaign was working. We responded forcefully, airing TV commercials, radio commercials and Web ads pounding away at the fact that Lieberman's anti-war rhetoric was hiding his pro-war agenda. Our closing ad, for instance, ended with Lamont stating: "A vote for Joe Lieberman is a vote for more war." That the message didn't get out to enough people is a commentary not on our campaign's blindness to Lieberman's strategy -- but simply on Lieberman's own impressive talents for persuasively lying to voters about his position on the war with a straight face.

Finally, there is the myth circulating that Lamont's loss means the Internet is not a potent political weapon. Again, this is utterly silly. With the help of top Internet political strategist Tim Tagaris, we raised millions of dollars online, created the revolutionary Family, Friends and Neighbors tool, and brought in thousands of volunteers through the Internet. Sure, it wasn't enough to overcome the aforementioned structural challenges we faced -- but without the netroots and Internet activism, the Lamont candidacy never would have gotten off the ground in the first place.

Make no mistake. Washington pundits and career politicians attack the "netroots" because the rise of the Internet threatens to undermine their relevance and expose them to unwanted grassroots pressure. But politicians who write off the achievement of this growing political force do so at their peril. A record 86,000 new voters registered during the campaign, turnout approached all-time highs, and, as the New York Times noted, "Lamont's campaign buoyed thousands of new voters and volunteers, and many of them helped the Democratic candidates in competitive House races." A big part of all of that was the Internet, with the Lamont campaign proving once again that this is a medium on the rise, not decline.

A year ago, Ned Lamont had a zero percent name recognition in Connecticut. He was just a guy with some business experience and a lot of money. But he said enough was enough and walked into the fire -- the fire of negative attack ads, Establishment scorn and party abandonment -- to help give voice to the millions of Americans who wanted to see an end to the War in Iraq.

Even those ideology-free politicos who see politics as sport can appreciate how astounding our achievement was, just in terms of sheer electoral power. A candidate who was on the statewide general election stage for 12 weeks convinced roughly 450,000 voters to cast their vote against a 36-year career politician wielding 100 percent name ID and a massive lobbyist-funded warchest. When the votes for all the candidates were counted, the majority of Connecticut had voted against Lieberman. While not enough of that majority anti-Lieberman vote supported Lamont, no one could deny that a very powerful message had been sent to both Lieberman and the country.

I expect the Bash Ned Lamont campaign to intensify over the next few weeks, with the right already working to smear him and his supporters like they smeared George McGovern. Let's face it -- in the the face of victories by people like Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and a new group of economic populists in the House, the right (and particularly the shrinking faction of right-wing Democrats) need something, anything, to hitch their wagon to. It's tough times these days for both Republicans and right-wing Democrats -- and tough times bring ugly desperation and historical revisionism.

But for movement progressives, the reality is clear. We need more Ned Lamonts. We need more leaders who have the courage to mount primary challenges to anti-progressive Democrats like Lieberman. We must also understand that in fighting these fights, we are going to lose more than we win. That is what happens when you challenge incumbents. But both the wins and the losses are important, because they all help build a longer-lasting movement that transcends any one election cycle.

I say all of this not as a "petty partisan polarizing negative name-calling finger-pointing extremist" -- all terms Joe Lieberman used repeatedly to characterize Lamont supporters and war critics in general. I say it as a citizen interested far less in the ascendance of one party or another than in actual changes in policy, results and outcomes. Think about it for a moment. Lieberman's victory is not a victory for any issue or policy. He all but admits this when he says his campaign is a victory for a nebulous and undefined "bipartisanship" rather than for any position or policy. His victory, in short, was a victory by one man, for one man.

On the other hand, Lamont's candidacy was never about the candidate, it was always about an issue -- the Iraq War. It is clear that even in defeat, his candidacy affected that issue in a more profound and constructive way than Lieberman has ever affected any issue in three decades on the public payroll.

In the recent edition of In These Times , I wrote a cover article pointing out that no matter what happened on November 7, the real fight in American politics begins on November 8. Lamont's heroic campaign may have ended, but the movement that fueled his candidacy has a lot of work to do, whether it is to force the Democratic Party to use its new majority to press a change in this war's course, or a change on all the other issues that wait to be addressed.

The hope is that the huge number of ordinary people who stepped up and supported Lamont and other progressives this year will see the campaign for what it was: a major formative step in a growing movement that has a very real opportunity to profoundly change America for the better.

David Sirota is a senior editor at In These Times . He served as a top strategist and researcher for Ned Lamont’s U.S. Senate campaign. Before that, he was a top strategist for the gubernatorial campaign of Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s first Democratic governor in 16 years. His new book Hostile Takeover was published by Random House’s Crown Publishers.

 
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