THE BLOG

Letting Go of Joe

08/08/2006 11:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For months now, security-minded Democrats have feared the fallout if Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, sometimes dubbed the party's most hawkish hawk, loses his primary race to antiwar challenger Ned Lamont. Lieberman's defeat, they worry, will cast the party as captive to the isolationist left, undercut its credibility on defense, and hurt other Democrats in the November elections.

Meanwhile, the party's far left wing is celebrating Lamont's showing as proof of the might of bloggers and outside-the-Beltway activists to control the party's course.

Both sides are wrong. Lieberman's defeat--engineered less by Internet junkies than by mainstream liberals in the Connecticut suburbs--heralds not a new Democratic peace movement but a hard-fought resoluteness and clarity on national security that Democrats have achieved in recent months. No longer skittish or defensive about criticizing the Bush administration's stances on Iraq and terrorism, Democrats are unafraid of risks and are finding a voice on foreign policy that should win them ground at the polls.

Lieberman didn't lose because he voted for the war or because he opposes an immediate pull-out from Iraq. Plenty of other Democrats hold those positions yet remain popular--including, notably, Senator Hillary Clinton, who also faces a primary challenge from an antiwar leftist yet is coasting toward reelection.

In fact, Democrats, like other Americans, hold a wide range of views about what to do about Iraq. If a city gets built based on years of faulty plans and flawed construction, even the best engineers may not be able to agree on how to fix it.
But Democrats --and mounting numbers of independents and Republicans--have come to agree that the war has gone badly wrong and that a radical change of course is needed.

This new consensus took time to gel. Many Democrats started off supporting the war and believed for years that American efforts would somehow conjure a stable democracy out of Iraq's hot and violent recesses. It took years of bloody photos on the front pages, bleak assessments from generals, and rising regional instability before doubt and fear hardened into distrust and frustration. But for nearly a year now, more than 60 percent of the public has disapproved of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

Yet as the public mood changed, Lieberman stood still. While professing unhappiness with what he called a handful of "mistakes," he held fast to his basic support of Bush's policies. He offered no proposals to stabilize Iraq, reduce anti-American hostility worldwide, or spare the lives of more soldiers. Even his "last ditch" speech on Sunday aimed to shore up wobbly voters understated the gravity of the Iraq debacle. He showed no inclination to rethink the administration's false framework of either "stay the course" or "cut and run."

Though Lieberman's piety and stern talk of principles have always played well with pundits who celebrate centrism and bipartisanship as ends in themselves, they came to strike Connecticut voters as arrogance. Lieberman's stubborn consistency fed the impression not of a brave maverick but of a moralist too smug and proud of his cross-party ties to contemplate change, even in the face of America's worst foreign policy debacle in decades. As a result, other long-standing grievances against him tumbled forth from voters.

In the meantime, the territory of Democratic toughness on security shifted under Lieberman. Democratic leaders with strong bona fides as interventionists--including Senators Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden--no longer prove their mettle by blandly supporting the administration. They do so by pulling no punches in their demands for more effective diplomacy, more robust homeland security, and an end to failed Mideast policies. Leadership that aggressively proposes and pushes new directions, rather than offering me-too support for Bush policies, has slowly propelled Democrats past Republicans in polls asking which party would do a better job handling national security issues.

For this reason, Democrats need not fear that Lieberman's loss will pigeonhole the party into an identity fashioned by the far left, or paint the party as spineless.

On the contrary, the Connecticut outcome shows precisely the kind of decisiveness that voters have been waiting for from the minority party. Democrats - led not by operatives but by ordinary voters - have finally drawn a clear line: there is room for a wide range of views on Iraq in their ranks, but the one view they won't abide is the belief that nothing needs to change.

To be sure, agreement that Iraq is a mess cannot, in itself, substitute for a foreign policy platform. Democrats still have to explain how they would do things differently. But the new public view of the war, and the resolve for change that Connecticut Democrats have shown, may well shape the terms of the fall elections.

Unlike election day 2002, voters aren't looking for unrepentant hawks. Unlike 2004, they aren't swayed by candidates who prize consistent positions over correct ones. As the Connecticut outcome illustrates, in 2006, they are out of patience with false promises and unafraid to take a chance for change, both of which bode well for Democrats.

By Suzanne Nossel and David Greenberg