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Partisan Crevasse May Be Widening

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut says he can win reelection as an “independent Democrat.” But his primary defeat signaled that the label may be a contradiction in terms: Many Democrats are hungry not for independents but for junkyard-dog fighters who will counter the aggressive tactics they see from the Republican Party and the Bush administration.

That sentiment now suggests that a partisan Washington may become even more divided.

Democrats who watched the pro-Iraq war Lieberman lose may be more inclined to attack President Bush’s policies. And Tuesday brought a reminder that Republicans also may be in a mood to reject candidates who don’t meet the expectations of the party’s most partisan voters. Conservative interest groups targeted and defeated a moderate Republican, Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan, for his support of bilingual ballots and more-open immigration laws, among other things.

“Going along to get along isn’t acceptable by either party,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic committee that sets strategy for winning House races.

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“Having a few good partisans who will take shots makes politics and government better,” Emanuel added. “The nomenclature of Washington is that we should all just sing ‘Kumbaya.’ But there was no oversight of this war, and everybody sang ‘Kumbaya,’ and everyone’s paying dearly for that.”

Republicans believe that the Iraq war and broader national security issues will help energize the conservative base. And GOP partisans did not hesitate Wednesday to spin the Lieberman loss to their advantage.

They painted the defeat of Lieberman, the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee who has supported the war, as the latest effort by liberals to reject a strong national defense -- just as the Democratic Party did, Republicans said, in 1972 with the presidential nomination of George S. McGovern.

Vice President Dick Cheney held a rare conference call with reporters to publicly lament seeing “a man like Lieberman pushed aside because of his willingness to support an aggressive posture in terms of our national security strategy.”

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And Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman delivered a speech calling Democrats the “Defeatocrat Party,” referring to GOP charges that antiwar Democrats are pushing a defeatist approach to Iraq.

Speaking to reporters near Bush’s ranch in Crawford, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow attacked from a slightly different angle, saying the Connecticut results were “a defining moment for the Democratic Party, whose national leaders now have made it clear that if you disagree with the extreme left in their party, they’re going to come after you.”

Republicans also sought to use the Lieberman loss as an opportunity to drive wedges in the Democratic base -- following White House advisor Karl Rove’s strategy of energizing conservatives while trying to make certain Democratic voters question whether they should vote with their party.

For instance, the Republican Jewish Coalition said Wednesday that it was purchasing ads in Jewish newspapers saying Lieberman was a “voice of support for Israel” that had been “silenced by the Democratic Party.”

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Meanwhile, an internal RNC analysis suggests that lowincome voters should not feel comfortable with newcomer Ned Lamont, the wealthy cable TV executive who defeated the three-term incumbent Tuesday. It said Lamont’s victory was fueled by “limousine liberals,” whereas Lieberman’s votes came from less affluent voters who could not afford to be so devoted to opposing the Iraq war.

The Republican response Wednesday was highly coordinated, tightly matching a set of GOP talking points distributed to activists and strategists. The effort also paralleled an internal strategy memo, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, that laid out the party’s intent to mobilize its base for the election by highlighting Bush’s actions in Iraq and the notion that Democrats were weak in their approach to “foreign threats.”

A stream of reactions Wednesday from Democrats --including those who have supported the war in Iraq, such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts -- suggested that many party leaders were taking to heart the message that they should sharpen their criticism of Republicans.

Clinton’s political action committee cut a check to Lamont’s campaign. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who leads the Democrats’ Senate campaign effort, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a joint statement citing a perception that Lieberman was “too close to George Bush, and this election was, in many respects, a referendum on the president more than anything else.”

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Kerry noted his longtime friendship with Lieberman, dating to their days at Yale University. But he endorsed Lamont, concluding: “The Democratic Party stands for something.”

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, whose Daily Kos blog has become a beacon for the left and served as a cheerleader for Lamont, celebrated the Connecticut results as evidence of centrist Democrats’ inability to score tactical wins.

“The D.C. crowd led a popular 18-year incumbent to defeat,” Moulitsas wrote. “Is it any wonder” Republicans have been defeating Democrats? he asked.

But Tuesday’s loss appeared to put Lieberman back in a comfort zone, where he could look beyond Democratic primary voters and search more broadly for voters who despise partisanship. He seemed ebullient during his concession speech, and in interviews Wednesday said that just over 7% of the Connecticut electorate backed Lamont.

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“I think it’s time for somebody to break through the dominance of both parties by the margins of the parties, which happens in primaries,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer on the “Today Show.” “I think it’s time for somebody to break through and say, ‘Hey, let’s cut out the partisan nonsense.’

“Yes I’m a proud Democrat, but I’m more devoted to my state and my country than I am to my party,” Lieberman added. “And the parties today are getting in the way of our government doing for our people what they need their government to do.”

Democratic Party leaders said repeatedly Wednesday that the Lamont win was not a vote for isolationism, a tacit acknowledgment that the party establishment was not ready to put its faith in an antiwar platform either for the midterm elections or the 2008 presidential race.

Peter Beinart, editor at large of the New Republic magazine and author of “The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” recalled a candidate survey completed by Lamont in which he listed North Korea as an “imminent threat.”

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That, Beinart said, suggests that Democrats will attempt to chart a middle course -- just as Clinton did last week when she called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld without recanting her initial support for the war in Iraq. Her point was to attack the administration, not necessarily demand that troops come home.

“What [Lamont supporters] hate about Lieberman is not that he’s too conservative, it’s that he’s not partisan enough,” Beinart said. “Democrats need to be ideological centrists but partisan. That’s the electoral sweet spot in this post-Lamont environment.”


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