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The Connecticut race
A whole lot is going to be written about what happened in Connecticut. Whether Lamont wins or not, we know that a major national politician has been seriously challenged by a newcomer. How did we get to this point? I think there were three critical moments in this race which left the door open for Lamont to make his remarkable run:
1. Lieberman attacks other Democrats over Iraq. Last year the Senator choose to publically chastise other Democrats for challenging the President over our failing policy in Iraq. Many, including me, thought this was way over the top. The Administration used the Lieberman lines against other Democrats for weeks. What is critical here is that Joe went after Democrats not for our policy choices, but for even wanting to have a debate over whether Iraq was working or not. Understanding this part of the story is essential, for the anger towards Joe has always been more about his defending a failed President against other Democrats than it has been his stance on the Iraq War itself.
2. Lieberman ignores and discounts his opposition. In a period that lasted from last year to until a few months ago, Lieberman, in a very dangerous move, essentially told those who were unhappy with him to pound sand. His first ad of the campaign told voters that even though they disagreed with him on the War, there were many other things they did agree on - the message there being I know you are unhappy with me but too bad. And what is incredible is that he used his own money to remind the voters of the state why they were angry with him!
During this time the inchoate anger towards him for betraying those that brought him to office was buttressed by this incredible arrogance and self-righteousness. Remember a third of the country was against the War when it happened; meaning that perhaps half of all Connecticut voters were against the War when it happened; meaning that more than half of all Democratic voters were against the War when it happened three years ago. Today more than three-fourths of the state believe the President is doing a bad job, and that the War is a failure. To tell voters that on the issue they most care about that they are wrong, and I know better isn't principle, as Joe has asserted, its arrogance. Particularly when it is clear the voters are right on this one. The President and the War are a disaster.
During this long period many tried to intervene and help the Senator. His path was simple here - just make it clear that though you are sticking to your guns on Iraq, you want to listen to the concerns of those who are concerned and unhappy about the War. Sit with folks who are angry. Listen. Attack the President in your ads, and in your speeches for Katrina, for a declining middle class, for the high levels of corruption in Washington, for the estate tax, etc. If the main attack against you is that you are too close to Bush make it clear you think he is doing a bad job - something two thirds of the country agrees with you on.
None of this happened. Millions of dollars and countless days were spent on messages to the voters of Connecticut that nothing to do with what was on their mind - why is our Democratic Senator seemingly so uninterested in what Democrats think and believe, why is he defending a War that seems like such a disaster, and why is he so close to Bush? This campaign will go down as one of the worst of modern times.
3. Lieberman goes independent. So Democrats are wondering whether you a Democrat any more and whats the answer? File as an independent, essentially proving that the opposition's attacks on you were right. This was the most important moment in the campaign, and the one that if Joe loses, I believe, is the main reason why. Prior to going independent, Joe was up by 20 points in the polls and in command of the race. Lamont was still ill-defined, and Joe plenty of money to take control of the dialogue and the race itself. All were waiting to see what Joe would do with this stronger than expected challenge. He choose to cut and run, and not stand and fight.
Within weeks of this decision the race shifted dramatically. 20 points in some polls, 30 in others. Shifts of this magnitude can only happen with extraordinary external events. In this race one of those extraordinary external events happened - a popular and respected Senator had proven that his critics were right - he no longer cared about being a Democrat. He was going independent, leaving his Party. And that is the reason this decision to go independent was so fateful. It reinforced the essential concern Democrats in the state had. And it was the kind of bad decision that causes even people like Joe Lieberman to lose an election.
Final thoughts. Joe Lieberman is my friend, and a mentor of mine. He is a remarkable man, a good leader and one of the smartest people I know. It has been personally very painful for me to watch this political trainwreck over the past year. I offered my advice, weighed in when asked, tried to help, but not suprisingly, there was very little interest from the Senator and his people in what folks like me had to say. They never really believed it was going to be a race until it was too late.
While I believe there are larger lessons here for the Party about our passion, our principles, our ideology, the rise of the netroots etc, I think first and foremost the story of the Connecticut race is one of a good man who had lost touch with the people that brought him to office; and the main lesson is that candidates who get too close to Bush and his failed government this fall could pay a terrible price.
But of course all of us will have more to say about this in the days ahead. Very interested in your thoughts.