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Learning From Lamont (cont’d)
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, an In These Times senior editor and syndicated columnist, is 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 email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.