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August 16, 2006

The Lieberman moment has echoes on both sides of the Atlantic - it could prove disastrous for the left in the UK and the USA, argues John Bew

Posted by John Bew

If the political left draw the wrong conclusions from the defeat of Joe Lieberman in his Senate primary race, this could prove disastrous for it both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Or so argues John Bew, Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge and an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.

The defeat of Joe Lieberman at the Connecticut Senate primary of 8th August 2006 could represent a watershed moment in the race to replace President George Bush. It is too soon to be writing obituaries for Lieberman, who will contest the state in November as an Independent, with every chance of winning. But if historical precedents are anything to go by, the result may have a lasting impact on the party that has rejected him.

The size of the scalp should not be underestimated. Lieberman was Al Gore's Vice Presidential running mate - the first Jew to achieve that position - in 2000. His name carries national, cross-party recognition.

The narrow victory for his challenger, Ned Lamont, represented the climax of a bitter campaign, in which Lieberman's opponents punished him for his continued support of the war in Iraq. Lamont is a political newcomer, who would have stood no chance against such a high profile figure in any other circumstances. But the election was fought on America's role in the Middle East, an issue that has poisoned and polarised American politics to an extent not seen since the war in Vietnam.

Lieberman has placed himself firmly within the FDR-Truman-JFK tradition within the Democratic Party, noted for its tough line on issues of security and national defence. His defeat seems to confirm the extent to which this line is being marginalised within the Party.

Some have hailed the campaign as a return to bottom-up, popular democracy in the United States. With much of the party establishment backing Lieberman, the momentum behind Lamont's victory is said to have been achieved through the support of the so-called "netroots": an increasingly influential combination of grass roots Democrats and internet bloggers. In particular, much has been made of the role of websites such as the Daily Kos in chipping away at Lieberman's credentials.

The reality is that Lamont made ample use of his vast personal fortune, made as a cable television entrepreneur: the anti-war answer to the corporate milch cow. One particularly effective campaign advertisement pictured Lieberman being kissed on the cheek by George W. Bush as the President made his way to deliver the State of the Union address.

Indeed, the more one looks at the Lamont triumph the less it appears to be a populist triumph for the little man, against all odds. The breakdown of the election results have been expertly dissected by Michael Barone, the leading American political commentator, on his blog for US News and World Report. In traditional Democrat towns such as Waterbury, Barone explains, with a large blue-collar, white working class community, the evidence suggests that Lieberman remained well ahead of Lamont.

For Lamont's campaign manager, towns such as Waterbury, likely to be crucial in the November's mid-term elections, are where the

forces of slime meet the forces of evil.
For Barone, such attitudes capture the:
snobbery in upper-class left-wing politics, a snobbery that expresses itself in contempt for the working-class communities that for many years were the core constituency of the Democratic Party but do not usually share the dovish views and cultural liberalism of upper-class left wingers.
One inevitable consequence of the Lieberman defeat is that it will generate more demand for a strongly anti-war candidate in the Democratic Presidential primaries. The frontrunners include Hilary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards of North Carolina and possibly Al Gore, who has ruled himself out of the race for the moment. But as yet, the only serious potential candidate who voted against the war in 2002 is Russell Feingold, Senator of Wisconsin. Cue the sort of flip-flopping that proved so costly to John Kerry last time round.

In particular, Hilary Clinton's shape-shifting on this issue is steadily forming into an archive of gold dust for Republicans. For Jonathan Tasini, the anti-war Democrat who is challenging her for her New York senate seat, her increasingly sceptical position on the war is nothing more than a

quick makeover and cover-up act.
At the same time, many centrist Democrats are concerned that Mr Lamont's victory will push the party too far to the left to be able to appeal on a national scale, alienating moderates and independent voters. And the Democrats have been here before. The triumph of Lamont has echoes of the nomination of the doveish George McGovern to run for the Presidency in 1972, at the expense of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the domestic liberal and Cold War warrior.

On that occasion, the subsequent campaign was dominated by the Vietnam war: casualties, regret and war weariness all exceeded the current opposition to the policy in Iraq. But McGovern's campaign for unilateral withdrawal contributed to the perception that the Democrats were weak on national security. A subsequent landslide for Richard Nixon gave the Republicans ownership of this issue, to an extent which Democrats were unable to challenge until the 1990s. It took Democrats nearly twenty years to shake off that perception. They may think twice before going down the same path.

If many in American politics are already repositioning themselves for the post-Bush era, the sense of urgency in British politics is even greater, where the post-Blair era is almost upon us. In the same week of Lieberman's defeat, both the Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, made the suggestion that the Israeli response in Lebanon had been "disproportionate". One could not avoid the impression that both statements had more to do with signalling clear blue water from the Prime Minister than making a genuine contribution to the debate.

The first priority of Blair's successors, Labour or Conservative, will be to draw a line under his foreign policy. In Britain, the recent fiftieth anniversary of the Suez War has brought some wise old Tory sages out of the woodwork, to remind us of the dangers of foreign adventurism. The "realist" faction in the Conservative party - of Malcolm Rifkind and Douglas Hurd - clearly believe that this is the moment to strike.

Within the Labour Party, by contrast, an older and arguably more significant anniversary went largely uncovered. It is seventy years since the International Brigades, containing many Britons and Americans, joined the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, which began 1936.

Tellingly, Dennis MacShane MP - former Labour Minister for Europe - had to find space in the pages The Spectator to celebrate those who

defied the conventional wisdom of the non-interventionist and stop-the-war petitioners of the day
by intervening in a conflict that prefigured the Second World War.

Since it is commonplace for many on the Left to delve into the work of George Orwell, one could be forgiven for returning to his Spanish Civil War novel, Homage to Catalonia (1938), which provides an insight into the bitter internal divisions within the anti-fascist cause. Ultimately, the brave men who took on General Franco lost the real battle. One reason was that they spent most of their time arguing between themselves.

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He is an editor of The British Moment: The Case for Democratic Geopolitics in the Twenty-first Century.


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