Friday, July 07, 2006

Joe Lieberman tries to Kerrify his opponent

Joe Lieberman may bill himself as a staunch Democrat, but as he fights this summer to salvage his political career, he is borrowing some rhetorical tactics from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Last night, the three-term, hawkish Connecticut senator clashed in a televised debate with the no-term, dovish Ned Lamont, the cable mogul and political neophyte who is threatening to derail Lieberman in a Democratic primary slated for Aug. 8. This the hottest political story of the season -- a former vice presidential candidate may get drummed out of his own party by the antiwar liberal base -- and the fact that Lieberman even agreed to a debate was an admission of his serious political vulnerability.

Another sign of weakness was his decision to cast aside his avuncular manner and adopt the persona of an attack dog prowling for raw meat. Lamont was the intended meat. Lieberman has apparently decided that he can ill afford the high road; instead, his only choice at this point is to build himself back up by trying to tear down his opponent.

Lieberman's goal was to erase the perception -- actually, it's the reality -- that this Connecticut primary is a party referendum on him. He wants to make the primary a referendum on Lamont, the novice challenger who, by definition, is far less experienced. In reality, Lieberman's career is imperiled because many Connecticut Democrats see him as a pro-war toady for President Bush, somebody who has aided and abetted a strategic and military disaster in Iraq, somebody who has repeatedly failed to ask the tough questions and hold Bush accountable. So Lieberman's intent is to make Lamont the bad guy, to paint Lamont as an "inconsistent, unpredictable" character who "offers mostly criticism, negativism, and pessimism."

Those were Lieberman's words last night. The thing is, they sounded a lot like the way Bush sought to depict John Kerry in 2004.

Lieberman even claimed that Lamont has had six different positions on what to do about Iraq, which, again, conjured memories of Bush's attack on Kerry as a waffler who lacks the courage of his convictions. In truth, Lamont did have a wobbly moment a few weeks ago when he and his people weren't in total sync about what should be done, at a time when Senate Democrats were offering two resolutions aimed at starting troop withdrawals. But Lamont has generally hewed to a "troops out" stance, which he repeated during the debate; he also repeated a jab at Lieberman that he has consistently employed during the primary campaign: "We have 135,000 of our bravest troops stuck in the middle of a bloody civil war. And I say that those who got us into this mess should be held accountable....The war is a mistake, and we should admit it."

At times, Lieberman tried out an old Reagan debate line ("There you go again"), whenever Lamont sought to paint Lieberman as being disloyal to the Democratic party. But it was another sign of weakness that Lieberman felt compelled to tell viewers about how often he has disagreed with Bush ("on everything from tax cuts for the rich, to privatizing Social Security"). And it's true, as Lieberman said, that he has voted with his Democratic colleagues roughly 90 percent of the time.

But voting records can be misleading. Three random examples: Lieberman was one of the last Senate Democrats to join the fight opposing the Bush plan to partially privatize Social Security. Second, while Lieberman did vote against Bush high court nominee Sam Alito, his initial act was to oppose any prospect for a Democratic filibuster that might have blocked Alito at the outset. Third, he helped Lynne Cheney (wife of Dick) create an academic organization that has assailed university professors who criticized Bush's foreign policy. (Lamont, however, didn't make these points. He looked at times like a deer caught in the headlights, predictable behavior for a guy making his debut as debater on national television.)

I have no idea whether Lieberman has helped or hurt himself with Connecticut Democrats who plan to vote in the primary. Will they be turned off by Lieberman's aggressive behavior, and the fact that he treated Lamont as excrement attached to the underside of the senatorial shoe? Or will they give him points for political courage, for sticking to his guns on Iraq despite the fact that the most motivated primary voters are probably the folks who hate the war?

I tend to doubt that the answer to the latter question will be "Yes." I suspect that most primary voters will resent the fact that Lieberman (like Bush) basically implied that those who oppose this war are endangering national security. As Lieberman said to Lamont at one point, "If you want to turn Iraq over to the terrorists, follow the policy you have enunicated."

That was two-fisted stuff. And as the hour end, one final thought struck me:

Why wasn't Lieberman this tough when he faced off in the 2000 vice presidential debate against Dick Cheney? Why was he far more schmoozy with Bush's taciturn sidekick? (As Connecticut radio host Colin McEnroe recalled this morning, "he let Dick Cheney walk into the debate as Darth Vader and out as Mister Rogers.")

Lieberman had better hope that, on Aug. 8, Connecticut Democrats don't ask themselves the same thing.
And I'll have more to say about this primary -- and the national Democrats' predicament -- in a newspaper column slated to run Sunday or Monday.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Zarqawi, Lay, and God

The news marches on, even at holiday time, which is why I just spied a certain pithy quote about the latest bloodshed in Iraq. It appears that the ballyhooed U.S. slaying of terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hasn't amounted to a hill o' beans in this crazy world. The quote:

"In terms of the level of violence, it (his slaying) has not had any impact at this point. As you know, the level of violence is still quite high."

Who would say such a thing -- perhaps the "America-hating" New York Times? A "defeatist" liberal somewhere? A "cut and run" Democrat, such as John Murtha?

No. That quote belongs to Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's ambassador to Iraq. And he said it on Independence Day, no less. Granted, he was only acknowledging factual reality -- the civilian death tally in Baghdad has actually increased sharply since Zarqawi's death -- but surely there must be a constitutional amendment that forbids the uttering of truths inconvenient to the Bush administration.

I was on a plane yesterday when this gem surfaced:

In the wake of the death of convicted Enron felon Ken Lay, Bush press secretary Tony Snow was asked to comment on the relationship between Lay and his boss. Snow replied, "The president has described Ken Lay as an acquaintance."

"Kenny boy" was just an acquaintance? Not according to letters released under the Freedom of Information Act. Here's the governor of Texas, writing to the corporate leader back in 1997: "Dear Ken: One of the sad things about old friends is that they seem to be getting older -- just like you! 55 years old. Wow! That is really old. Thank goodness you have such a young, beautiful wife. Laura and I value our friendship with you. Best wishes to Linda, your family, and friends.
Your younger friend, George W. Bush."

Chatty exchanges about jogging, gifts, bad knees...It appears that the definition of "acquaintance" is a friend who defrauded his employes.


But, of course, many liberals have their own problems with factual reality. Witness some of the reaction lately to Senator Barack Obama's provocative speech about the role of religion in politics, and the failure of his fellow Democrats to attract devout voters.

Obama, the much-touted presidential candidate of 2012 or 2016 or 2020, probably alienated some folks on the left by stating the obvious last week:

"(T)here are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word 'Christian' describes one's political opponents, not people of faith....(I)f we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.... (S)ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Obama has come under attack for making these arguments. The basic charge is that he is consorting with the enemy, feeding the GOP line that Democrats are Godless. David Sirota, a top liberal activist, complains: "The more high-profile Democrats give credence to right-wing lies/myths, the more the party's image problem grows. It's time for Democratic leaders who show the country what they believe in - instead of telling the public the lies we already hear on right-wing radio." And prominent liberal blogger Chris Bowers writes: "So thanks Senator Obama, for reifying this Republican-driven talking point about Democrats. Now almost everyone will think that Democrats are hostile to people of faith. Well done."

The problem with those analyses is that, as actual electoral evidence makes clear, Democrats do have a problem with people of faith. What Obama said is not new at all; various liberal religious leaders, such as Jim Wallis, for several years have been urging Democrats to close the "God gap." Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, a nonpartisan with no axe to grind, has been chronicling the Democrats' problem for a long time. It most recently manifested itself in 2005, when John Kerry won only 21 percent of white evangelical Christians -- nine percent lower than Al Gore's share in 2000.

During the fall of 2004, John Green, an Ohio academic who specializes in religion and politics, told me that the swing group in the election -- comprising 19 percent of the electorate -- would be "centrist Catholics" and "centrist evangelicals," people who go to church regularly, yet who are suspicious about the religious right. Those voters, he said, were looking for a reason to vote Democratic, looking for signals that the Democrats respected their religiosity. But in the end, they didn't vote for Kerry in the numbers that he needed.

It would appear that electoral statistics support this conclusion, from Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein (memo to liberal readers: yes, he did work for Joe Lieberman, but that doesn't automatically disqualify his view). Gerstein writes on his own blog: "The electoral math here is simply undeniable. Democrats are getting crushed in the competition for faith-based voters, and because our base is considerable smaller than the Republicans, we simply don't have the luxury to ignore (or God forbid insult) this considerable bloc any longer if we want to become a majority party again. To acknowledge that deficit and work to fix it is not giving aid and comfort to the enemy -- it's taking common sense to its logical conclusion."

One last thought: When I read Obama's remarks about clueless Democrats who send the wrong signals on religion, I remembered a comment that Howard Dean made during the '04 primary season. Dean explained during a debate that in the 1980s he had switched from the Episcopal Church to the Congregational Church because the former wouldn't give him the land to build a bike path.

No wonder Karl Rove viewed Dean as his favorite Democratic candidate.