Why Is Antiwar Joe Lieberman Winning?
by Matt Stoller, Fri Oct 20, 2006 at 03:00:57 PM EDT
This race in Connecticut is puzzling. The Q-poll is mostly nonsense. It was completed last night at 9pm, with the Q-poll director Doug Schwartz pretending as if the second debate, which ended an hour earlier, figured into the results. I don't know why Schwartz would act so unprofessionally. Maybe he's just embarrassed about his earlier predictions that Lieberman would easily win the primary, or that anti-Bush feeling wasn't hurting Lieberman. I don't know. But the poll isn't right. Still, it's undeniable that Lieberman is leading, and probably by 10-14 points. That's a lot to make up. It's not impossible, especially with Alan Schlesinger in the race and with Joe's ballot position as bad as it is. But Lieberman isn't going down easily at all.
Now, this race is exceptionally strange, because it means that Connecticut is cutting against the national tide pretty aggressively. Not only is Lieberman doing well, but the three Congressional Democratic challengers aren't doing as well as they should be considering the national environment. Is there something in the water here? Well, no, but there's a lot of confusion. There's something wrong with the conventional wisdom of this race, and that's impacting voting choices for low information voters. Right now, the conventional wisdom is that Lieberman's support is coming from Republicans who support the war and unaffiliated and Democrats who support Joe on other issues. Lamont carries the strictly antiwar vote, but hasn't broadened beyond that. The CW assumes that the war just isn't that important here.
But does that really make sense? Is the war is less important in Connecticut than nationally? I don't think so. Could it be Lamont? Is it because Lamont didn't successfully paint himself as opposed to the war? Not likely. So what is going on, exactly?
I believe the answer is in these two ads. This is Joe Lieberman's first ad in the primary campaign.
This is Joe Lieberman's first ad in the general election.
Notice the dramatic shift in Lieberman's positioning on the war? Believe it or not, this shift has gone mostly unnoticed by bloggers and the press. I certainly didn't pick it up until recently.
Don't cringe, but I'm reminded of Iowa and Dean in 2004, where a Kerry staffer told me that John Kerry and Howard Dean have 'basically the same position on the war'. Despite a very antiwar voting bloc, Kerry took first place, Edwards took second, and Dean got a measly 18%. I'm not saying that that's what's going to happen here, but what I am saying is that Joe Lieberman is framing himself as something of aan antiwar candidate, repeatedly saying that 'no one wants to end the war in Iraq more than I do.' This is an intelligent way to misrepresent his opinion, because there's no way to know how much Joe Lieberman 'wants' anything. That's unproveable one way or the other.
What is clear is that his record of wanting to stay the course was pretty solid until the general election, and his actions didn't suggest that he 'wanted' to end the war at all. Just eleven months ago, he wrote an Op-Ed called 'Our Troops Must Stay', in which he lauded the administration strategy:
Does America have a good plan for doing this, a strategy for victory in Iraq? Yes we do. And it is important to make it clear to the American people that the plan has not remained stubbornly still but has changed over the years. Mistakes, some of them big, were made after Saddam was removed, and no one who supports the war should hesitate to admit that; but we have learned from those mistakes and, in characteristic American fashion, from what has worked and not worked on the ground. The administration's recent use of the banner "clear, hold and build" accurately describes the strategy as I saw it being implemented last week.
Earlier this month, Lieberman spokesperson Dan Gerstain contradicted this by saying:
Dan Gerstein, communications director for Lieberman's campaign, said it was an "out-and-out lie" to say that Lieberman favors a stay-the-course policy in Iraq.
This even as Lieberman surrogates said the opposite:
Staff Sgt. James Liska said Lamont's position on the war changes with his audience. Whereas, "Joe Lieberman has consistently said we're going to stay the course," he said.
Lieberman has been similarly slippery on Iran, John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, and whether we're making progress in Iraq. He's running as an antiwar Democrat when talking to public at large, and a conservative Republican when talking to Republicans. He lets surrogates signal to Republicans that Joe is their choice, surrogates such as George Bush, who spoke publicly about Lieberman as someone purged from the 'Democrat' Party because he supports 'victory in Iraq'.
That's why this race is so hard, in a nutshell. Joe Lieberman has promised to end the war in Iraq, and it's a message that a substantial number of antiwar Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters want to hear. They don't want to believe that the person they voted for three times, Joe Lieberman, introduced the war resolution, undercutting a more responsible resolution by Biden that would have called for a larger UN role and more emphasis on planning for a post-war Iraq. They don't want to hear that Lieberman just called for regime change in Iran, and they don't want to recognize that Lieberman just put his support towards John Bolton, the most pugnacious and anti-UN Bush official, a man who pushed the WMD line inside the State Department and scuttled the North Korean negotiations.
The Connecticut press has by and large accepted the conventional wisdom that Lieberman is for Bush's war, and Lamont is against it. But that's not actually what the electorate thinks. The electorate listened to Lieberman's commercials, and at least some portion of them believe that he's not really that pro-Bush or pro-war. I mean, he used to be a Democrat, and said he'll caucus with them, right?
So in Connecticut, the three Republicans and Joe Lieberman are able to blur the line between them and the Democrats on the war, because the press doesn't know that the public doesn't know. In the rest of the country, Lieberman's trick, of using his party affiliation to hide his political affiliation, doesn't work, and so the contrast is starker.
This is a really interesting story, and it's something I hope the Connecticut press pursues. Lieberman won't explicitly admit to a change in position on Iraq, but his commercials, and the message he's putting out around the press, say that he has changed even as surrogates like George Bush and Dick Cheney quietly defend Lieberman's GOP credentials.
What a ride!