Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Good and Bad from the elections

I'll be honest -- I was so into Lamont's challenge to Lieberman that I felt, and still feel, that a Lamont victory would have been worth more than the Democrats taking the house and senate. At this point, they have taken the house (by a margin sure to widen during tomorrow's counts) and they might well take the senate (they need just two seats right now) but Lamont lost.

He lost by only 4 percentage points. That in itself is impressive, given Lieberman's long tenure in the senate.

But I'm also, frankly, heartbroken.

To be clear, I have no problem with third party challengers and, in fact, I would like to see more of them. I'm a bit annoyed at Lieberman for challenging after losing the Democratic primary, but only because the Democrats built him up in the first place. In any event, that's a minor annoyance. I have always supported his right to to run outside of the party and I'm even impressed to see that he was right in assumining that he'd win a general election after the primary.

But, I am dismayed to see that incumbency is so powerful in American politics that it can even make a primary loser like Lieberman into the odds-on favorite in a general election. Anyone who would bother to read this blog already knows that the task of a challenger to national office is almost always insurmountable. Office holders always have the advantage in money, influence and notoriety and those advantages are hard to beat. For Ned Lamont to come so close against an 18 year senate veteran is, in itself, a type of victory. But it's still a loss.

Though I oppose Lieberman because of Lieberman's policies (not just his support for the war in Iraq but for his social conservatism and for his willingness to allow things like bankruptcy reform and the Samuel Alito nomination to pass) I was actually more concerned with Lieberman's attitude towards this race. Lieberman acted as if he was entitled to his Senate seat. He defended that seat in 2000, even as he ran for vice president. In 2006, his party nominated another candidate and he said he would not let that election stand. Today, Lieberman made good on his promise and he did not let the will of his primary voters stand. His tactics against Lamont were dirty, even by the standards of a hard-fought election. He paid people to harass Lamont to the point that Lamont couldn't make campaign stops. Lieberman accused his wealthy opponent of pouring personal money into the race even as he tapped his own, sizeable, campaign coffers that had been stuffed with money by corporate and even wildly conservative donors. Lieberman even didn't seem to mind that the Republican party and it's national leaders like president Bush refused to endorse the Republican candidate in the race and preferred to use Lieberman as a Republican proxy.

Lieberman has promised to caucus with the Democrats in the Senate. I sure hope he keeps that promise. The Senate will, no matter who wins it, be so tightly divided that any one member will be able to make a major difference. The Democrats need two seats to take control of the Senate right now. I really do worry that Lieberman will caucus with Republicans in order to give them control, or that he'll caucus with Democrats but will continue to be a Republican ally so that even a Democratic majority won't really matter. Lieberman has already said that he now feels liberated and when asked how "indepedent" he'll be in this term has said, "just watch me." I feel that, after watching Lieberman vote for cloture on the bankruptcy bill while knowing it would pass, or after him refusing to fillibuster the Alito nomination while knowing he would be confirmed, that I've already watched Lieberman's "indepedence." Ever since his failed bid for the White House in 2004, and perhaps dating back to his failed run with Al Gore in 2000, I've watched the "independent" Lieberman and I've seen somebody who seems to be working hardest for the Republican agenda. I don't want to watch more of that. But, it seems I'll have to.

I am really dissapointed in the lack of Democratic support for Ned Lamont. Heroes like Wesley Clark and Connecticut's senior senator, Chris Dodd, actively supported Lamont as the party's rightful nominee. But where was Bill Clinton, the most influential Democrat in the country? Where was Hillary, the former First Lady who deserves a spot alongside Susan B. Anthony for being the first First Lady to win a seat in the Senate? Heck, where was the supposedly revitalized Al Gore, who should know Lieberman better than anybody? Where was New York Senator Chuck Shumer, who runs the party committee that is meant to get Democratic candidates elected to the senate? Seems to me that a lot of prominent Democrats gave verbal endorsements to Lamont right after he won the primary but that they failed to really work for Lamont after that had offered their platitudes.

That, to me, is the real tragedy. There's a definite sense, in American politics, that a candidate can't win a major election unless he's really party of the machine that either the Republicans or the Democrats have built up. In his independent bid, Lieberman quite effectively argued that elections should be about the country, rather than the party. It went unnoticed that Lieberman only made that argument after his party's voters kicked him to the curb.

But, as I said early on here -- I don't believe that our two-party system is healthy. I've never believed it was healthy, and I've run the gamut of political opinion in my own life (I've been a rabid conservative, a radical liberal and everything in between) so I really don't have a lot of love for either camp and I've supported third parties for a long time.

Lieberman's victory, however, is not a triumph for third party candidates in general. Lieberman only left his party when it failed to serve his own interests and ambitions. He didn't leave for philosophical reasons.

I'm overjoyed to see that America's discontent with both the war in Iraq and the Bush economy has led to a repudiation in the form of a Democratic house and a possibly Demcoratic senate. But Lamont's loss, I think, bodes ill for our democracy at large.

Lamont's loss suggests that even a candidate who is wealthy enough that he can't be outspent and who has already beaten his opponent in a primary, can still not unseat a long-time senator. That's a bad, bad, thing. It suggests that political power, once an individual attains it, is an unbeatable asset. That's too bad. Our democratic republic was meant to function on the notion that even the most familiar people's representative can be ousted.

I can't close without blaming Lamont a little bit. Lamont managed to inspire people to work for him and those people propelled Lamont to a primary victory that, at the outset, most observers dismissed as an impossibility. Those people then brought Lamont to within 4 points of beating a senator who has held his post for 18 years. But, Lamont made a mistake, I think, by relying too heavily on his supporters. Lamont was a first time candidate, up against a seasoned pro, and he did well. But not well enough. I think he relied on his supporters and cheerleaders too much, and failed to make his mark as an individual. I can rather easily forgive that as a rookie's mistake, but that doesn't change the outcome.

Putting policy aside and putting the broader ramifications of tonight's election aside, I really believed that Lamont beating Lieberman was an important objective in the fight to restore American democracy. It was, after all, as pure as you'll see in any election, the story of an outsider challenging an established office holder. That Joe "The Establishment" Lieberman won really depresses me. It's shaken my faith in an outsider's chances in a modern American election.

That said, let's end on a high note. Lamont inspired a lot of new voters and he inspired a lot of people (particularly the young and the technology-literate) to get active in a state-level campaign. Lamont's ability to inspire such support is especially noteworthy in the context of a mid-term election that is so tight that many partisans would otherwise have been willing to ignore Lieberman's Republican-enabling in order to focus their energies on races that had actual Republican seats at stake. Lamont managed to take a real fight to Lieberman in an election where, it could be argued, that all internal differences within the Democratic party should have been ignored in favor of knocking Republicans (and only true, registered Republicans) out of government. Lamont started out as a dark horse, perhaps even as a vanity candidate, and he became a real threat to entrenched power. Lieberman started the race as perhaps not the most popular Democratic office-holder, but as a Democrat nonetheless who was not the right guy to challenge while there were so many active, vocal, and committed Bush supporters already in office.

But Ned beat Lieberman in the primary. He got within 4 points in the general. He also made Democratic Bush enablers an issue in this year's elections.

When forced to form, join, and run the fan club for the "Connecticut for Lieberman party," Lieberman suddenly started speaking as if he's a man above party-politics and, like any good third-party candidate will, Lieberman railed against the political alienation that troubles average citizens from both parties every day. But Lieberman only did that because it was his only way to remain in the halls of power. What Lamont did, and this is an accomplishment that I believe will be ignored but that shouldn't be ignored, was to make policy choices (sometimes minute choices) into an issue for this election. Lieberman might go on saying that he's "liberated," and that his victory is proof that Americans want independence from the parties, but it's Lamont that fought the good fight that enabled such issues to be discussed.

In the general election, Lieberman was neither the underdog nor the outsider, even if he now claims he was both. Lamont was the underdog and Lamont was the outsider. I'm sad he lost, because I think it would have been healthy for America is the underdog outsider had won. A Lamont victory would have put every career politician on notice. His loss, I fear, has put them at ease.

So... Ned lost. I'm sad and even a little angry. But, he lost.

Still, the man came damned close and he did it against all of the odds. Let's not allow the entrenched fat cats to forget just how close Ned Lamont came to overthrowing a senator who has been in office so long that he seems to think of his post as a divine right.

I remember when Ross Perot ran and lost. I remember the run-up and Perot's height of fame and influence, and I remember that he was, for a moment, "the next big thing." But, he lost. He ran again, four years later. He had influence still, but it had waned. He lost a second time. Then, he was forgotten and relegated to the dust bins of history. He was an outsider who showed up, peaked, and declined. That he altered the outcome of 2 general presidential elections has been forgotten. I'm not saying I'd have ever wanted Perot to be president. I'm just saying that he made a mark. We've since forgotten that mark and it's now rarely mentioned (except in self-serving ways). After Perot, Ralph Nader did the same. Also twice. Also forgotten.

Joe Lieberman was not the outsider. He was not the dark horse. Lamont was. And Lamont came damned close. Let's not forget the guy over the next ten years. He fell short of victory, yeah. But the man made a point, not so much about Iraq or the economy or the judiciary, but abbout how an outsider can effectivel challenge, and even attack, the entrenched players in American politics.


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