Last night, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman lost a hard-fought Democratic primary to challenger Ned Lamont. Despite campaign visits from party leaders like Bill Clinton and Barbara Boxer to boost the incumbent Senator’s campaign, Lamont proved that Joe Lieberman is out of step with his party, his state and his country. More than any Democrat, Lieberman has consistently supported a failed war in Iraq that has hemorrhaged American lives, the American budget, and America’s standing in the world. This election sends a powerful message to politicians of all parties that “stay the course” is the wrong strategy, and it shows Democrats in particular that they cannot continue to blindly follow President Bush’s policies.
Lieberman was visibly angry in his concession speech, as he vowed to ignore the primary result and continue to campaign against Lamont in November as an independent candidate, draining away resources from the Democratic Party that would be better used elsewhere. He came off as a bitter old man, who after scolding his own party for being too harsh on President Bush, simply could not understand why Democratic voters would want to choose someone else. For an 18-year Beltway politician like Lieberman, losing a primary was a genuine blow that almost never happens. But it does happen occasionally, and the last time a long-time Democratic Senator lost his re-election in a primary should teach Lieberman a lesson or two about knowing when your time is up.
In 1992, Illinois Senator Alan Dixon had never lost an election in his 42-year career. Like Joe Lieberman, he was a conservative Democrat – but unlike Lieberman, he didn’t delight in attacking and undermining liberals in his own party at every single opportunity. But a few months before his re-election, Alan Dixon voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. This prompted Carol Moseley-Braun, a Chicago politician who was then Cook County Recorder of Deeds, to face the odds and take on an incumbent Senator in her own party’s primary.
Political establishments always support their own incumbents, and just like how the Democratic Party leaders got behind Lieberman, they got behind Senator Dixon in the primary. But Carol Moseley-Braun defeated Alan Dixon. Unlike the Lieberman-Lamont race, Moseley-Braun’s victory was completely unexpected and must have been an even greater blow to Dixon and his long career. Unlike Lieberman, Dixon had never said things to his fellow Democrats like: “in times of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril” that would predictably cause a backlash. But on that night, Senator Dixon thanked the people of Illinois for electing him over 42 years, graciously conceded defeat, and vowed to get behind his party and support Carol Moseley-Braun in the general election.
I was in Eighth Grade at the time and living in Chicago, and it had a lasting impression on how I view politics. First, political incumbents – even if entrenched and powerful – can be vulnerable and held accountable for their actions. Second, grassroots insurgent campaigns can be won if chosen intelligently and handled skillfully. Third, if you lose an election, you accept defeat with class – even if you are vehemently angry about the outcome and feel that it was grossly unfair.
Joe Lieberman had threatened to run as an independent if he loses for weeks, saying that he did not want to be bound by a low-turnout primary election in August – when most voters are on vacation and the electorate is skewed towards passionate progressive activists. But Lieberman can’t make that excuse anymore. While voter turnout had been expected to be around 20%, the Connecticut Secretary of State now estimates that it was about 50% -- the highest voter turnout for a party primary since 1970
Lieberman has always been more popular among Republicans than among Democrats, and Connecticut has a large proportion of unaffiliated voters. Last month, Lieberman said that he wished to put his case in front of the entire people of Connecticut – not just voters in a Democratic primary. But if that were true, why not simply concede the primary to Ned Lamont, and run as an independent in November? Why insult the voters by putting them through a meaningless primary if you don’t care about the outcome anyway? When Lieberman made his formal announcement that he would not be bound by the primary results, even his own supporters raised these questions.
Lieberman had attacked Lamont as a “one-issue” candidate (the war in Iraq), and said that he did not believe that Democrats should be subject to a “litmus test” on the issues. But Iraq was only the most serious of a long-standing litany of complaints that progressives have with Joe Lieberman. He has never supported universal health care, questioned affirmative action, supported school vouchers, and even supported the federal government’s intervention in the Terri Schiavo matter. While he was the first Democratic Senator to scold President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, Lieberman derided the effort to censure President Bush for the illegal wiretapping program, because we should not “scold” the president. And while other Democrats supported the war in Iraq, Lieberman was the only one targeted for defeat because he has consistently attacked other Democrats for even questioning the war’s motives.
In his concession speech, Lieberman used what he called a sports analogy – “we’ve just finished the first half and the Lamont team is ahead – but in the second half, our team is going to surge forward to victory in November.” That’s funny. I always thought that good sportsmanship meant that you don’t change the rules in the middle of the game just because you are losing. If an NBA team loses the semi-finals, can they just decide not to be “bound by the rules” and compete in the final championship? Of course not.
Joe Lieberman needs to know that his time is up. Like Alan Dixon (and other Senators before him who lost a primary), he’s got to accept the defeat and move on with his life. He only risks himself further embarrassment by staying in the race. After all, I’m sure that Fox News would be eager to give him his own show – just like Zell Miller.