The Lieberman Purge
Politics Where There Shouldn’t Be

The three-term Democratic senator with presidential ambitions provoked opposition from the left wing of his party because of his support for the war while there was a Republican in the White House; as a result, he drew a primary challenge from a relative political neophyte who opposed the war. But in 1970, Senator Scoop Jackson fended off Carl Maxey in the Democratic primary, and went on to be reelected three more times before his untimely death in 1983.

Resident Fellow Theodore Frank
Resident Fellow Theodore Frank
A generation later, it says something about the current state of the Democratic party that Joe Lieberman, the sole remaining Scoop Jackson Democrat, could not repeat his predecessor’s feat. Notwithstanding Jackson’s victory, the 1970 Democrats became the McGovern Democrats of 1972; today’s Democrats, led by kamikaze bloggers, give every indication of the same sort of self-immolation--only more so, as even a liberal like Hillary Clinton may fall victim to the tide because of her association with the relatively moderate Democratic Leadership Council, the only organization that produced a winning Democratic presidential candidate in the last quarter century.

Lieberman will get a second chance with the voters when he runs as an independent in the general election. Democratic party nominee Ned Lamont received 146 thousand votes, slightly over 10,000 more than Lieberman. But total Connecticut voter turnout in the 2002 federal election was just over a million voters. So, for all the blather about “net-roots” motivating a new generation of voters, the millions of dollars spent managed to pull only the leftmost 15 percent of the Connecticut electorate

Of course, the fact that Lieberman is popular among independents and Republicans (and will presumably not have his campaign workers’ e-mail shut down by denial-of-service attacks in the general election) is nearly offset by the fact that he will no longer have access to Democratic party get-out-the-vote machinery, nor many of the endorsements that got him within a few thousand votes of the primary. Thus, online prediction markets have Lieberman as only a slight favorite in the race. (And if Lieberman does win, it will be because the Connecticut Republican party, giving up the race for lost months ago, nominated the uninspiring Alan Schlesinger instead of someone who might have contended in a three-way race. The state Republicans are trying to nudge Schlesinger aside with a pseudo-scandal over his [legal] gambling, but, as of this writing, he insists on staying on the ticket.)

What is perhaps most disturbing about the purge of Lieberman (aside from the virulent anti-Semitism all too present in the fever swamps that are the comment sections of various left-wing blogs) is the use against him of the quote that had so many Lieberman opponents upset, repeated time and time again by left-wing bloggers Glenn Greenwald, Daily Kos, and Atrios: “It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge 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.” (They never mention that, immediately following this, Lieberman says, “It is time for Republicans in the White House and Congress who distrust Democrats to acknowledge that greater Democratic involvement and support in the war in Iraq is critical to rebuilding the support of the American people that is essential to our success in that war.”)

Lieberman spoke those sentences as part of a longer December 6 speech where he noted the famous aphorism of former Senator Arthur Vandenburg that “Politics must stop at the water’s edge” and that politicians must “seek national security ahead of partisan advantage.” While Lieberman quoted Vandenburg, the line was reminiscent of Jackson, who had said “In matters of national security, the best politics is no politics.”

Lieberman concluded:

“[D]uty calls us now to take ourselves above the ordinary partisan debates of this capital city, to unite for victory, to walk the course together until our mission is completed, our security is protected, and the forces of freedom have once more emerged triumphant from the battlefields of power and of principle.”

Heaven forfend!

If 5,100 Lamont voters, 0.5 percent of the Connecticut electorate, had voted for Lieberman, the senator would have retained his party’s nomination. Did the blogosphere’s repeated slapping of Joe Lieberman with his quote taken out of context cost Lieberman those votes? If so, it is telling that the Democrats of 2006 value the mere possibility of partisan advantage more than they value national security--and so much so that Lieberman’s daring to suggest national security is more important tarred him as someone who must be expelled from the party.

Less than a quarter-century after Scoop Jackson’s death, we must now mourn the end of the Scoop Jackson Democrat.

Ted Frank is a resident fellow and director of the Liability Project at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Ted Frank is a former resident fellow at AEI. He specialized in product liability, class actions, and civil procedure while at AEI. Before joining AEI, Mr. Frank was a litigator from 1995 to 2005 and clerked for the Honorable Frank H. Easterbrook on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Frank has written for law reviews, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and The American Spectator and has testified before Congress multiple times on legal issues. He writes for the award-winning legal blogs and Overlawyered, and the Wall Street Journal has called him a "leading tort-reform advocate."  Mr. Frank was recently elected to membership in the American Law Institute.

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