Politicians of all stripes were outraged when news first broke about the Dubai port deal, but not Senator Joseph Lieberman. Declaring that it was “not yet” time to block the deal, Lieberman distinguished himself as one of the few legislators — and the only prominent Democrat — to support the Bush administration in the firestorm over Dubai Ports World’s bid to take over terminal operations at six major American ports.
Lieberman’s position was roundly condemned in Democratic activist and online communities, where many consider him a turncoat. Some Democrats are even openly supporting a challenger in the August primary for his Senate seat.
The groundswell of opposition from within Lieberman’s own party runs far deeper than the Dubai deal — and, for that matter, his continued support for the war in Iraq. The fallout between the Connecticut senator and the Democratic base illustrates a broader debate that has gripped the party since the most recent presidential election.
The debate has little to do with ideology. It is, first and foremost, about leadership.
Many activists believe that Lieberman’s conciliatory approach undercuts the party’s unity, consistency and confrontational posture, all of which are essential for an effective opposition party. They resent his style more than they resent his voting record, which is not very different from those of many popular Democrats.
Democrats saw in the Dubai ports debacle an opportunity to catch President Bush on the defensive. They wanted a unified message blasting the administration’s failure to handle port security and touting their own solid record on the issue, including the Hollings and Byrd port appropriations amendments that Republicans squelched in 2004. Instead, Lieberman broke ranks to support the outsourcing of port security to a country that housed September 11 hijackers and has a diplomatic policy that recognized the Taliban but not Israel.
This reflexive support of Bush infuriated the Democratic base. The founder of Daily Kos, the top Democratic blog with about 3 million unique visitors a week, charged that the valid port security issues were trumped by “Lieberman’s allegiance to Bush.” Progressive blogger Jane Hamsher was even harsher, questioning how Lieberman could support the president on a policy that sends the message “Screw Israel.”
Such online thrashings have become common for Lieberman, who has experienced a sudden and severe fall. He was the Democrats’ widely respected running mate in 2000 and an aspiring national candidate in 2004. Now he faces scorn from the party’s activist base and rebellion at home, where businessman Ned Lamont says he will formally declare a primary challenge this month. In case anyone thinks Lieberman is not taking this seriously, last week he held an elaborate press conference to announce endorsements — simply to be his party’s nominee.
Lieberman obviously still has incumbency, fund raising, name recognition and good poll numbers on his side. Yet Democrats’ enthusiasm for devoting resources to this internal battle, instead of to races that actually could win back Congress, reveals the increasing significance of leadership strategy in the debate over the party’s future. While Lieberman may be the most noticeable target, he is not alone.
Last month, the influential progressive organization MoveOn.org asked its members if it should devote resources toward similar primary challenges. (For full disclosure, I wrote a chapter for the 2004 book “MoveOn’s 50 Ways To Love Your Country.”) The group announced that 84% of respondents agreed, and it is now leading a primary challenge to Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar.
Cuellar voted for the war, but like Lieberman he is facing attacks as much for party disloyalty as for policy. MoveOn’s fund-raising e-mails have featured a picture of Bush clasping Cuellar’s cheeks, and they have denounced him for undermining Democratic initiatives and for making statements that poke “progressives in the eye.”
Critics of this approach say an opposition party cannot afford to quibble with its elected members, and that all resources should be devoted to winnable swing districts in the next election. But that misses the whole point: Proponents of primary challenges are actually strategizing beyond the next election.
They believe that some of the party’s most visible scars are self-inflicted. Its reputation is tarnished by prominent Democrats who capitulate to Republicans at every turn, undercutting the entire rationale for an opposition party, and by candidates who define their personal strengths by knocking their party’s perceived weakness, as Zell Miller and Evan Bayh have done with national security. Eradicating such timidity and disloyalty would be good for the party; challenging it is just common sense.
To elucidate the substantive cost of capitulation, it is worth reviewing one of Lieberman’s most infamous failures. In 2002, he introduced a Democratic proposal for a Homeland Security Department to reorganize government preparation for domestic attacks. It was initially opposed by Bush, who was more interested in using security as a campaign issue than for bipartisan public policy.
When opposing the idea of a Homeland Security Department became politically difficult, Bush reversed his stance and Lieberman naively pursued a “bipartisan compromise” with him. That created an opening for Bush to build credibility on the bill. He stole the idea, stifled its passage to politicize the issue for the midterm campaigns, and lied by claiming that legislation was delayed because “Democrats are not interested in the security of the American people.”
And it all worked. The GOP won seats and passed a similar bill after the election. Republicans celebrated, Democrats mourned and Lieberman didn’t seem to notice.
That was more than three years ago. Today, Democratic activists have little patience for leaders who still don’t get it. The Santa Monica-based Digby’s Blog explained the contrast in a post this month: “The grass roots of the Democratic Party see something that all the establishment politicians have not yet realized: Bipartisanship is dead for the moment, and there is no margin in making deals. The rules have changed. When you capitulate to the Republicans for promises of something down the road, you are being a fool. When you make a deal with them for personal reasons, you are selling out your party. When you use Republican talking points to make your argument, you are helping the other side.”
If Democratic leaders listened to this insight, they would understand that many of their supporters yearn for confrontational leadership and unwavering allegiance to the party — reasonable requests that do not require major ideological shifts.
The primary challenges to Lieberman, Cuellar and other like-minded Democrats are designed either to purge the targets or to temper their conduct, while warning other elected Democrats that disloyalty now has a cost. It is a valiant effort finally to give the Democratic Party more discipline, all the more striking because the calls for unity are coming from the bottom up.
Ari Melber, a former legislative aide in the Senate and national staff member on the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry, is a contributor to the Huffington Post.