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Learning From Lamont

Lamont campaign staffer discusses the real reasons Lieberman was reelected.

BY David Sirota

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?

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.

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David Sirota, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is a staff writer at PandoDaily and a bestselling author whose book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything was released in 2011. Sirota, whose previous books include The Uprising and Hostile Takeover, co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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