Monday, August 07, 2006

Joe slogs through the quagmire of his own Iraq remarks

Greetings from Connecticut, where beleaguered Joe Lieberman has only 36 hours to save his tuchis.

For those of you unfamiliar with Yiddish, I'm sure you can guess the synonym. But if you're more familiar with football, let's put it this way: With fourth down and 30 at his own 10 yard line, the hawkish Democratic senator has to throw a successful Hail Mary pass in order to score a miracle finish and thus save his own...ass.

The Connecticut Senate Democratic primary is tomorrow, antiwar challenger Ned Lamont is on top in the polls, and this has indeed prompted Lieberman to throw that Hail Mary. He did it last night. He would have preferred, like all candidates, to finish his campaign with one of those affirmative, upbeat cliches about his ongoing desire to work his heart out for working families all over his great state -- and thus say as little as possible about his ongoing support for the war in Iraq. Instead, and apparently amidst great internal debate within his campaign, he decided to confront the war, to explain and defend himself on the issue that threatens to sink his career.

Clearly he is still sensitive about the charge (widely believed in this state) that he has been a toady for President Bush on the most critical issue of our time, a Democrat whose idea of "bipartisanship" was to back Bush on the war without getting anything in return. So, in his speech last night (which was hurriedly added to his stump schedule), he mentioned that he has at times faulted Bush for not having a postwar plan, not putting enough troops on the ground, and not enlisting enough international allies. He said, "I know as well as anyone we have made a lot of mistakes in Iraq, and we have suffered more casualties than we should have..."

But a lot of Democratic senators, including Hillary Clinton, voted to authorize that war, yet they haven't been similarly targeted by antiwar opponents. The grievances against Lieberman go deeper. Last November, for instance, he wrote on the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page that Democratic dissenters on the war run the risk of undermining the commander in chief. This admonition infuriated Connecticut war critics, who for some reason view dissent as a free exercise of the First Amendment.

This is the war issue that Lieberman especially tried to address last night. But I don't think that, in his argument, he succeeded in defusing the antiwar ire, and here's why:

After declaring, "I not only respect your right to disagree or question the President, I value it," he contended that his Wall Street Journal remark "has been widely misconstrued." He stated: "I did not suggest that the President or anyone else, including me, should be immune from criticism...The point I was trying to make was about how we disagree. My concern was, and remains, that if opponents or supporters of the war go beyond disagreeing, to exploiting the war for partisan political purposes...we could lose more than an election. We could put our mission in Iraq, the lives of thousands of American soldiers carrying it out, and our national security at risk. That is what I care about, and that is what I will not let happen."

But his Wall Street Journal remarks did not draw any such distinctions. The full context of what he said last November reads like a blanket warning to Democrats about any kind of dissent: "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander-in-chief for three more critical years and that, in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

The Journal remarks imply that any Democratic dissent will hurt Bush's credibility -- whereas, in reality, the factual record demonstrates that it is Bush and his war planners who have hurt their own credibility. Lieberman did not acknowledge that point in November, nor did he address it last night.

And with reference to his comments last night about how nobody should use the war "for partisan political purposes": Again, that can be read as a general admonition against discussing the war in the context of elections. Elections are, by definition, partisan and political. Elections are also the place where issues are aired and elected leaders are held accountable (or not) by the voters who elect them. It is inevitable that controversial wars will become issues in partisan elections. Certainly that's what happened with Vietnam -- as Lieberman well knows, because he was active on the antiwar side...during the highly partisan elections of 1970.

So I doubt that Lieberman's eleventh-hour explanations will sway many of the Democrats who are determined to punish him for the war. And any time a politician has to spend the closing hours of a campaign saying things like "the point I was trying to make," it's not a good sign. When a pol is playing defense, he is not on offense. If he's not on offense, he's flirting with defeat.

But what magnitude of defeat? The polls are all over the place, because nobody here knows how to measure the intensities of a dog-days-of-August primary electorate -- who will show up, and who won't, and why. The Quinnipiac University poll released last week had Lamont beating Lieberman by 13 percentage points. This morning, the same poll has Lamont up by six. I can't explain that. The ultimate question for tomorrow is this: Can the passion for saving Joe match or exceed the passion for punishing Joe?