Lieberman-Lamont and the blogs

by Henry on July 31, 2006

Mark Schmitt has the best blog-overview of the Lieberman-Lamont race that I’ve seen so far.

It’s a great expression of the Democratic Party of 1996: You got your enviros, you got your minorities, you got your women. Each group has one issue. For the enviros, it’s ANWR (the most trivial of victories, but the one that raises the money). For the minorities, affirmative action. (Likewise, of minor relevance to the actual structure of economic opportunity for most African-Americans and Latinos.) For women, it’s all about “preserve abortion rights.” There are a couple others, but those are the basic buttons you press to be credentialed as a good liberal Democrat. After you press them, you can do whatever you want. But has Lieberman failed to press those buttons? No! In fact, he’s been pounding on them like that guy at the elevator who thinks that if he presses “Down” hard enough and often enough, eventually the elevator will recognize how important and how late he is. … But where do these other issues come from? … since when do they care about bankruptcy? What if all of a sudden you couldn’t count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice – what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect women’s economic and personal opportunities?

There’s just one thing that I’d add to this. As Mark said in a previous post, the netroots aren’t a critically important force on the ground in Connecticut; they’re helping stir things up, but they’re only one of many groups that are doing this. The buzz for change is coming from the voters rather than the blogs. If you talk to the netroots people they’ll happily confirm this. But where netroots bloggers are playing an unique role is changing the way that this is being framed in the national political debate. They’ve made the Lamont insurgency into an attack on the shibboleth of bipartisanism. I just can’t imagine that the dueling editorials in the Times and the Post would have happened if the blogs hadn’t consistently and relentlessly framed Lieberman’s problem as a fawning and corrupt bipartisan deference to a president gone crazy. It would have been framed (as it was and still is elsewhere in the media), as a debate about the Iraq war, or a local race that was of interest not because of the issues at stake, but because the guy in trouble was a former vice-presidential candidate. The fact that guys like David Broder and Morton Kondracke view this as an attack on the tradition of cosy bipartisanship (and their source of authority in the punditocracy) isn’t an accidental outcome, nor is it something that would likely have happened if there hadn’t been blogs pushing this message (and getting read by reporters and editorialists) over a considerable period of time.

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1

sglover 07.31.06 at 11:50 am

Isn’t it interesting how Mark Schmitt consistently produces more genuine “analysis”, with more real insight, than anyone’s heard from the Broders and Krauthammers and Dowds in at least a decade? I’d absolutely love to see any of them try to pin Schmitt as a rabid left-wing blogofascist, or whatever this week’s term is…

2

blogenfreude 07.31.06 at 12:40 pm

For rabid left-wing blogofascism, see Agitprop’s Lieberman 2 Minute Daily Hate.

3

y81 07.31.06 at 12:50 pm

Well, I don’t share your admiration for Schmitt’s analysis, which seems to originate in some left-liberal fantasyland. Lieberman isn’t in trouble because of his vote on the bankruptcy bill, or his good relationship with the White House. He’s in trouble because the Iraq War has become, certainly for Democrats and possibly for everyone, the only issue. The Democrats who are going to be voting against Lieberman in the primary aren’t different in kind (though obviously they find more agreement on this website!) than the kind of Republican voters who won’t support a pro-choice candidate no matter what else he or she does.

4

Henry 07.31.06 at 1:24 pm

y81 – I’d recommend that you actually read (as Mark has clearly been doing) some of the reporting that is coming out of Connecticut on what’s happening there, and why people are coming out against Lieberman. I understand why you are framing the issue the way you are – but it really doesn’t reflect what’s happening. The movement against Lieberman is a lot bigger than the anti-war movement, and a lot bigger than the bloggers.

5

Golabki 07.31.06 at 1:24 pm

Y81 writes that “the Iraq War has become … the only issue.” To which the answer is: Yes, but.

You must understand what it is about Lieberman and the war that upsets Democrats. It isn’t that he supported the war, it is that he has refused, steadfastly, to do anything to change the administration’s conduct of the war. Instead, he has echoed the president’s view that criticism of the administration is “at our peril.” He defended the administration during hearings on Abu Ghraib (!) and was happy to confirm Alberto Gonzalez’ as AG. Those who spoke to him only a few weeks ago say he told them things were getting better in Iraq. In short, he doesn’t get it. And if that is not a basis to vote against someone, I don’t know what is. If anyone is out on the fringe, and far away from the commonly shared perception of the American public, it is Lieberman rather than his critics.

On the other points, I don’t know whether they’re lefty points, but they really shouldn’t be. As I recall the polling, federal intervention into the Schiavo matter was very much a minority opinion — particularly in Connecticut! And there are others; we could go back, of course, to his running away from Bill Clinton in order to express his disgust. And we all know how well that turned out.

I lived in CT for about eight years, and I can tell you that long, long before the Iraq war, there were a lot of Democrats in the state who were tired of “Holy Joe,” and voted for him because there was no viable alternative.

6

neil 07.31.06 at 1:37 pm

Then how, y81, do you explain away the Democratic acceptance of the other senators running this year who voted for the war? Hillary Clinton, to name just one, isn’t facing a primary challenge. She is also a senator from a safely liberal state. Same with Dianne Feinstein. How do you explain the fact that Connecticut voters happily voted for war-supporters in 2004, with consistently anti-war liberal Ralph Nader earning less than 1% of the vote?

For someone dismissing another analysis as ‘fantasyland,’ it does not sound like you have considered the obvious counterarguments to your own analysis.

7

sglover 07.31.06 at 2:40 pm

Lieberman isn’t in trouble because of his vote on the bankruptcy bill, or his good relationship with the White House.

Have you been conscious during the last couple of years? I can assure you that in addition to the Iraq disaster, many, many liberals saw bankruptcy “reform” as a heinous betrayal, the worst kind of bought-and-paid-for legislation, and Lieberman’s role in it was particularly underhanded and treacherous.

8

Uncle Kvetch 07.31.06 at 2:52 pm

Hillary Clinton, to name just one, isn’t facing a primary challenge.

Actually, she is. Unlike Lamont, however, her challenger has about a 0.001% chance of winning, so Neil’s point still stands.

That said, I would love to see Hillary have to face a Lamont-style challenger this year, instead of watching her cruise to an easy victory while tossing off vapid, mealy-mouthed platitudes about the unmitigated disaster that our foreign policy has become.

9

Matt Austern 07.31.06 at 3:01 pm

There’s one other way in which the blogs have been significant in this race: they’re (a component of) a money-raising mechanism that’s independent of the usual Democratic Party apparatus. One of the reasons a primary challenge against an incumbent is traditionally difficult is that it’s very hard for the challenger to get any money.

Again, one shouldn’t exaggerate the importance of the blogs. We didn’t see a lot of bloggy interest in Lamont until he proved himself to be a credible challenger, which he did the usual way—by being rich. Still, even being rich isn’t usually enough to be able to run a serious race against a three term Senator with the whole national party behind him. In this case Lamont was able to raise money and run a real campaign.

10

fester 07.31.06 at 3:28 pm

Matt — I know that there was a good deal of quiet blogger real world shoe-leather work for a viable Dem. challenger to Lieberman going back to the winter of 2005, and significant e-mail buzz and wonking up for the Lamont campaign in December 2005 and January 2006. Bloggers have been looking for test races of a more partisan but less ideological challenge for the new politics of quasi-parliamentarianism, and CT-06 is one of those races

11

ben alpers 07.31.06 at 3:29 pm

One aspect of the phenomenon of the Lamont challenge that has not been remarked upon enough (and that a number of comments have approached, but not expressed) is the extent to which Lieberman has become a kind of scapegoat for progressive Democrats discontented with the Democratic Party.

As a number of folks have pointed out, there are any many other pro-war Democratic Senators running for reelection this year, many of them in blue states. Yet none of them are facing a serious primary challenge. Nor is support for the war in Iraq the only potential beef that progressives might have with the party that supposedly supports their ideas.

The Democratic Party manifestly failed to block Bush’s Supreme Court nominees or his bankruptcy “reform” plan. Large numbers of Democratic Senators rolled over and voted to confirm any number of outrageous executive branch appointees (most recently Gen. Hayden). Almost one-third of the Democratic Senate caucus recently voted to pass a federal law making it a crime to help transport a minor across state lines in order for her to get an abortion. Yet, despite a lot of bellyaching about these votes, no serious thought is given to primary challenges (let alone alternatives to the Democratic Party).

Lieberman reflects much deeper problems with the Democratic Party from a progressive standpoint. And yet, the notion that he’s a unique case that can be solved with a single primary challenge is frequently heard in the progressive blogosphere, from folks who are as happy to support Casey and the Nelsons as they are to challenge Lieberman.

Netroots bloggers have been critical in framing Lieberman as a unique problem for the Democratic Party (as opposed to what I believe he is: a particularly severe symptom of a much larger structural problem with the party in general). And before Lieberman there was Zell Miller, who for a number of years was the one elected Democrat that one was encouraged to entirely revile in the progressive blogosphere.

Though I certainly look forward to seeing Holy Joe out of the Senate, I’d be happier if the left of the blogosphere had more critical distance on the party of which he is a member.

12

Henry 07.31.06 at 3:58 pm

ben – I’ll have a lot more to say on this soon-ish, but I get the very strong sense that netroots types (or at least many of them) do identify Lieberman as a manifestation of the problem rather than the problem itself. Which is really what I’m trying to argue here – that the framing of the Lieberman race as part of the wider problem of a corrupt form of bipartisanship is what matters (and what is getting the Broders of the world upset – if it was just a matter of losing one guy, I suspect they’d heave Joe over the side of the liferaft without much thinking about it).

13

Henry 07.31.06 at 4:00 pm

ps: see “this”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/29/AR2006072900680.html from Atrios today, and I’m pretty sure that digby had a go at Nelson a few days ago.

14

y81 07.31.06 at 5:00 pm

To answer some of the comments above:

Newspaper reporters certainly have no privileged source of insight in gauging popular moods. I read as many blogs and have as many Connecticut friends as the average reporter. Now if you showed me some results from an academic institution, like the polling institute at Quinnipiac University, indicating that Lieberman was in trouble because of the bankruptcy bill, I would take that seriously, but the idea that I would know more if I read more newspapers is really laughable.

Lieberman has been a vocal and prominent supporter–probably the most vocal and prominent supporter among Democratic senators–of the war and the administration’s conduct of it. That is why he is in trouble, and other Democratic senators, who voted for war but have complained about it and criticized the Bush administration since, are not.

Hillary Clinton is a special case. Everyone has made up his or her mind about her.

15

neil 07.31.06 at 5:16 pm

Sorry y81, I wasn’t aware that your comments were rooted in your intimate knowledge of what everyone thinks. My face is red now! Well, I guess you knew that.

16

Uncle Kvetch 07.31.06 at 5:27 pm

Netroots bloggers have been critical in framing Lieberman as a unique problem for the Democratic Party (as opposed to what I believe he is: a particularly severe symptom of a much larger structural problem with the party in general). […] Though I certainly look forward to seeing Holy Joe out of the Senate, I’d be happier if the left of the blogosphere had more critical distance on the party of which he is a member.

I’m with Ben on this. Too many prominent left-of-center bloggers are arguing Lieberman as some kind of special case, and pointing to the very weak intraparty opposition to, say, Hillary Clinton as proof of this. What really grates here is that so many of them seem to be doing this as a way of refuting the ridiculous pearl-clutching from the New Republic crowd (and Brooks and Broder etc etc) about “purges” and “ideological purity.” In other words, they’re allowing the right and the faux center to define the terms of the debate. Again.

More of them need to stop dancing around the issue and say yes, Joe Lieberman is the most glaring symbol of a much broader problem in the Democratic Party, and this could be the beginning of something much bigger than one Senate seat in Connecticut. And you can call that a self-destructive jihad led by bug-eyed zealots (under the nefarious direction of The Dark Overlord Kos)–or you can call it democracy. We already know what David Brooks is going to call it…but then again, is there any conceivable reason why any progressive-minded person should give a shit what David Brooks has to say about anything?

17

y81 07.31.06 at 6:50 pm

neil (#15), you seem to be wilfully misunderstanding me. My views are based on objective research, such as the public opinion surveys conducted by Quinnipiac University. I personally believe that disinterested academic study is the best route to the truth. Henry (#4) suggested that I read more newspapers, which I do not consider a good route to the truth. It is newspapers that publish what “everyone knows,” and it is academic researchers who, on good days, actually teach you something.

18

Chuchundra 07.31.06 at 7:44 pm

There are plenty of pro-war Dems, but none are as clueless as Holy Joe. You don’t see Hillary Clinton on Hannity’s show talking smack about the Democrats.

I’m liking the Lamont challenge very much. Maybe it will put the fear of God into some of the other Democratic senators who feel that their sinecure is guaranteed because they’re in a heavily blue state.

19

ben alpers 07.31.06 at 7:45 pm

Henry,

There are indeed prominent progressive bloggers — digby and Atrios among them — who are willing to be verbally critical of other center-right Dems like the Nelsons (though there are also those — like Kos himself — who really do suggest that Lieberman is somehow a unique case).

However, even among those willing to verbally criticize these other Democrats, there was never a serious movement to mount a primary — or general election — challenge to them from the left. Both Nelsons, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Clinton are all up for reelection; each has richly earned a primary challenge from the left. Yet no prominent progressive blogger has promoted such a challenge to any of them, even when there are candidates running against them (as there is, at least, in the case of Clinton).

In short, actions speak louder than words. And the only Democratic incumbent in the Senate who is facing a serious primary challenge from the left (and it ain’t too far to the left, either) is Lieberman. Indeed, the very narrative about Lieberman that you correctly describe as having been written (at least in large part) by the blogosphere — that Lieberman warrants a challenge because he is insufficiently partisan — itself militates against criticism of the Democratic Party per se.

20

John Emerson 07.31.06 at 11:01 pm

Ben Alpers: If we take down Lieberman, we’ll have leverage with some of the others. Concentrating on the single worst guy has a lot of point to it — fighting and losing 10-20 fight would be discouraging.

21

Down and Out in Sài Gòn 07.31.06 at 11:29 pm

Instead, [Lieberman] has echoed the president’s view that criticism of the administration is “at our peril.”

It’s one reason I don’t like the American political scene. In most other democracies, any opposition politician saying that about the government of the day would be attacked by his own party and ridiculed by the media – and rightly so in both cases. Imagine the Tories saying criticism of Blair is “at our peril”, or the ALP saying the same about Howard. The broadsheets would be overflowing with scorn.

Or to summarize: I expect opposition politicians to act like the opposition.

22

SamChevre 08.01.06 at 11:03 am

Isn’t Lamont-Lieberman pretty much the Democrat’s version of Specter-Toomey?

Lots of people were unhappy with Specter, for lots of reasons–dating back to his derailing of Bork’s SC nomination. However, it wasn’t until he became the symbol of “opposition to tax cuts” that there was enough coordinated dislike to mount a real primary challenge.

23

Uncle Kvetch 08.01.06 at 12:42 pm

You’re right, Samchevre, with one important distinction: When Toomey challenged Specter, I don’t recall any mainstream pundits wailing and rending their garments about the “ideological jihad” taking place in the Republican Party.

24

SamChevre 08.01.06 at 2:08 pm

Uncle Kvetch,

You may be right (I don’t read many mainstream pundits). A quick google, though, shows Business Week commenting “This year’s primary will determine if there’s room for a powerful moderate senator in the conservative-dominated Republican Party”, and I certainly remember the conservative part of the party thinking that was the issue (see NR’s coverage of the race as an example).

25

Tilden'76 08.02.06 at 12:16 pm

Ben and y81, you are both missing the point. Dozens of Democratic Senators and Congress members supported the war, only Lieberman finds himself in this situation and only Lieberman could. Lieberman is a special case, Ben. He is a special case, because it is not all about the war, y81. Lieberman has built his career and especially his national reputation through high profile rebuking of the sensibilities of his own party’s base voters. Church and state, Lewinski, Howard Dean’s “spider hole,” the Schivo affair, CEO compensation, tax cuts, labor rights, and yes y81, bankruptcy law, are among the scores of topics used by Lieberman to poke a stick in the eye the Democratic faithful. Yes, other Senators sometimes voted the same way, but they didn’t make a point of insulting their base with defiant condescension and self-righteousness.

The war is only the catalyst for a reaction waiting to happen. Throw the catalyst on a more inert situation, like any other Democratic Senator’s base, and nothing like this happens. It’s like a marriage. If the marriage is basically strong, it is resilient and people forgive their spouse even major missteps. On the other hand, if the relationship is on the edge from years of growing estrangement and seething frustration (a fair description of the way many Democrats feel about Lieberman), the same misstep leads to bitter recrimination and divorce. (And sometimes, reconciliation. We’ll see next week.)

You also make a mistake, y81, in putting way too much stock in polls. Over the last two decades I have read and commissioned more political polls then I can even remember. I count numerous career pollsters and statisticians among my friends and I can tell you flat out that it is a very crude tool for measuring motivation. Polls provide a snap shot of what is happening at a moment in time, but it takes quite a bit of poring over large amounts of polling data, usually sequenced in time and backed up by focus groups, to tease out why it is happening – and even then you aren’t always right. None of the data released on the race to date comes anywhere near giving us this kind of tool. Very little credible academic experimentation in real world American politics goes on at all, (Donald Green at Yale is the shining exception) so it is a bit futile to hold out for that as your standard. Ultimately, pollsters and strategists go with what their experience-honed instincts tell them. One thing that experience makes very clear to all of them is that voters almost never (or never, depending on who you ask) vote on issues per se. Issues act as building blocks and props in a narrative of values that guides voting decisions (this has been tested, by the way) and in that equation, where you are on bankruptcy law can be as useful a touchstone for defining a candidate as how you talk about the war.

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