The dismal Democratic messaging of the Lieberman debacle

I know a lot of people right now are furious Joe Lieberman has managed to keep his committee chairmanship.  I'm furious for a different reason.  In fact I'm not even mad at Joe Lieberman at this point or the fact that he managed to keep his chairmanship.  Don't get me wrong, I don't like Joe Lieberman at all.  I mean environmental policy is my highest priority (which he's actually been a leader on) and I still can't stand the guy.  From his crusade on decency standards, to his campaign against Ned Lamont, his foreign policy stances and support for the war, and adding in the 2008 election, Lieberman has always struck me as an arrogant and unapologetic egotist.

What I'm mad about is that once again I watched most of our esteemed Democratic leadership completely fumble the messaging around this whole ordeal and do so from Day One.  And that just scares the hell out of me.  Because while Democrats can get the messaging right campaigning, when it comes to governing they have shown an amazing capacity to just shoot themselves in the foot.  Seriously, they shown time and time again an amazing talent of turning the most white-hat, popularly loved, sunshine, kittens, and apple pie policy issue and into a tale of sordid backroom political maneuvering.

The entire narrative (at least in the mainstream press) on the caucus vote has been on the lines of 'will the Democrats punish Lieberman for criticizing Obama?'  Of course, you'd expect the media to run long and hard with that storyline no matter what message the Democrats were pushing; it has drama, betrayal, anger, all the good stuff of any MSM story.  But the Democrats never pushed any other message - they didn't argue on policy grounds at all.  Every quote, every damn quote, was framed around party loyalty and nothing else.  Not the effect Lieberman would have on Obama's popular if he kept his Homeland Security chair.  Not even a mention of what issues are expected to come before his committee and the effect they will have on the America people.  No, just some complaints about how Lieberman said Obama was inexperienced, and details of secret political machinations.  

As contrast, take the chairmanship dispute between Waxman and Dingell.  Waxman has come out with a powerful message that he'll best be able to help Obama enact the agenda he promised and that the American people want.  That message has worked well in the media, and while there are always political maneuvering tidbits in each article, most of the stories I've read have mostly focused on the policy issues behind this challenge.  In short, the Waxman-Dingell dispute has been grounded in issues affecting Americans and comes off as a principled argument relevant to American's real world concerns (just imagine how the media narrative would have changed if just one Senator had dared mount a challenge to Lieberman's chairmanship).  

By focusing on the party's workings versus the party's mandate, Democrats ended up backing themselves in a corner, which is precisely what allowed Lieberman to keep his committee.  Expel Lieberman and the first act of the new Democratic majority would be seen as pure political retribution, something the independents, young and infrequent voters so successfully courted by the party this last election, just can't stand.  Maybe that couldn't be helped regardless of what messaging party leaders used.  But they never even tried to fight it, guaranteeing that they'd concede to Lieberman in the end.

The conciliatory prize is that by not expelling Lieberman, the Democrats have put forth a good message: We are the party of inclusion.  It's a prize we have to settle for, but it's still powerful stuff, especially considering what we can expect to see from the Republicans for some time to come.  Having lost almost everything but the South and 'militia' areas of the Northwest, and having no moderate nonprofit infrastructure left, the Republican message for the next few years will be determined by it's most orthodox and ideologically conservative members.  Of course, Lieberman might still wreck important legislation with his powerful committee assignment, but hey at least we got a good message out in the end...

Tags: frames, Joe Lieberman, Media, messaging, Senate (all tags)

Comments

15 Comments

Re: Lieberman

I agree with your conclusions, but disagree with where the blame lies. It lies with us. We should be embracing the tone and assisting the Party leaders as they use forgiveness (and scolding) to convince Lieberman that his future can only be as a better Senator who moves in step with Democrats, that he is on a short leash, and we are watching.

Attcks on him at this point, especially if the Republicans can use them to give Lieberman the feeling that his real friends are on that side only undermines the goal - legislation and oversight and CLOTURE!

by QTG 2008-11-19 02:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Lieberman

Cloture?  Dream on.  You are very naive if you think Lieberman will allow cloture.  He was adimantly against it for the last two years.  In six months you will regret yesterday's vote.

Short sighted indeed.

But at least Americans have no political memory so we can flail around and not recognize the mess of our own making.

by Why Not 2008-11-19 04:48AM | 0 recs
You keep harping on that

You speak as if Lieberman will always vote against cloture no matter what, on any issue.  That doesn't take into account his 90% liberal record on social issues, or the fact that he has nothing to gain by playing obstructionist without an executive willing to play ball.

Who's the naive one?

by Dracomicron 2008-11-19 04:56AM | 0 recs
Re: You keep harping on that

Get back to me in 6 months.

by Why Not 2008-11-19 05:03AM | 0 recs
Gladly

Giving the entire situation a chance to shake out is what I've been advocating all along.

I'm glad you came around.

by Dracomicron 2008-11-19 05:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Gladly

One of us will be wrong, and I am pretty sure I know who.  But hey if Lieberman does come through I will gladly admit it.  Will you if he doesn't?

by Why Not 2008-11-19 05:34AM | 0 recs
That's the good part

If Lieberman does what you expect him too, I'm already on record as saying that he should fry.

I've already covered my bases by saying that, for the sake of the new era we find ourselves in, he deserves a chance to do the right thing.

So... I've covered my bases.  Tell you what, if Joe screws the pooch, I'll say that you were right.

But that wouldn't change the fact that I am totally right. :P

by Dracomicron 2008-11-19 05:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Lieberman's future behavior

 ...could certainly have been guaranteed by taking the retributive path. There is now at least some doubt as to whether the weasel will show some gratitude for the mercy.

by QTG 2008-11-19 07:04AM | 0 recs
dismal Democratic messaging

I think we should all remember this so that we do not let Obama's victory make us think the Democrats have outgrown there inability to get their message out.  Many of us are praising the end of the Republican party and commenting that it is now them that can't get their message across.  Well I'm pretty sure they can find a way to get a coherant message across faster than we can clarify ours, don't get me wrong, theirs will be full of lies, hypocracy and intellectual dishonesty, but boy will it sound right to the banjo playing christians and racists.  While ours will come off as insencere and "elitist".  We need to whip our process into shape to compete with the Republican propaganda machine.

by goodleh 2008-11-19 03:13AM | 0 recs
The main problem is backseat drivers

Obama won the right to give it the old college try, and we shouldn't be second-guessing him at this point.

We're squabbling over "message" and "method" when we should be pushing for results.

by Dracomicron 2008-11-19 04:32AM | 0 recs
Re: The main problem is backseat drivers

My criticism isn't aimed at Obama or his handling of the situation.  First, he was the target of Lieberman's attacks so any public indication of him looking to ouster Lieberman would have come across as personal retribution.  Second, he is now the executive branch and always has to be focused on a larger audience; he's the President of all the people and not the Democratic party.  If, especially after the Bush years, he acts otherwise he'll just squander his political capital.  

But this being a party discipline matter, it was never Obama's responsibility to determine Lieberman's fate to begin with.  The President distancing himself from party matters has been standard operating procedure for decades.  Whether or not Lieberman was going to be ousted, it was the responsibility of Democratic leadership outside the executive branch to handle this and keep Obama insulated from the fallout.  And considering they weren't sure how the vote would go up until the last few days, it's appalling that they failed complete to develop a case for ousting Lieberman without it seem like a petty political maneuvering, tainting the whole party's image (and Obama's by association) and spending down the political capital we need them to wield in order to get those results.

by ahisma 2008-11-19 08:17AM | 0 recs
Re: The message

I'm getting is hat people somehow see the Lieberman affair as an example of how Joe put one over on Obama and the Leadership. This is insane, of course. Lieberman outsmarting Obama? Lieberman owning the Leadership? Lieberman?

And the other message is that, despite all the recent History, bloggers know more than Obama about strategy - he didn't do one thing of the many pieces of buffoonery disguised as advice which were blogged incessantly during the campaigns - and he was right every time.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have opinions, but it might be smarter to allow ourselves to learn from a really good professor rather than try to correct him all the time.

by QTG 2008-11-19 04:45AM | 0 recs
Seriously.

I'm getting is hat people somehow see the Lieberman affair as an example of how Joe put one over on Obama and the Leadership. This is insane, of course. Lieberman outsmarting Obama? Lieberman owning the Leadership? Lieberman?

This is the guy that thought the Iraq war was a good idea and the guy who went to great lengths to bet against Barack Obama (and, for that matter, the Democrats) before the primaries even ended.

I find the notion a bit insulting.

by Dracomicron 2008-11-19 05:03AM | 0 recs
You make a good point.

I was opposed to punishing Lieberman because I felt that keeping the Homeland Security Committee gavel should be based on his performance as a senator and his voting record with the caucus, not his political activities outside the chamber.

If this had been a crusade against a chairman who had failed to do his job, I would have supported the effort.  Senator Byrd, for example, was forced out of his chair because his failing health made it impossible for him to do the job.

Senate Democrats screwed this up, and let's be frank, so did the netroots.

by psychodrew 2008-11-19 06:31AM | 0 recs
I see Obama's stance as smart politics....

Forgiving Joe, working with those with whom you disagree and not calling them evil is what he was preaching. It was the reason I didn't support him in the Caucus because I didn't think being adult and respectful would win (I am a recovering 2-time Edwards chair).

Well, he proved me wrong. And I find his lack of pettiness refreshing.

Joe is weakened and can't do much right now. His only hope is to try and win back the hearts of his constituents back home. His state is a very blue state and will not accept him if he is a problem for Obama.

And for those claiming he is leveraging for Repug positions. Think:

1. It got him nothing this time.

  1. The only way Repugs in the party would have accepted him was if he had to pay some sort of price to the Dems so he could be seen as a political victim (that option is gone).
  2. Moderate Repugs have no power in their party, why would he?

by IowaMike 2008-11-19 07:07AM | 0 recs

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