The defeat of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary tells us a number of things. That the bi-partisan post-9/11 consensus on the war on terror has broken down, that incumbents who become big players on the national stage and neglect the local game are vulnerable, and that the growth of the blogosphere and other alterative fundraising and communication channels open new opportunities for those looking to challenge establishment figures.
He may still win as an Independent, but whether he does or not has less significance for the Democratic party or the country than some would like to assert.
The bottom line is he is not that influential.
As a religious man, he was portrayed as the great moral conscious of the party during the impeachment of Bill Clinton. But he punted and gave him cover. When he ran for Vice President on Al Gore’s ticket, he had no moral qualms about quickly abandoning inconveniently conservative thoughts on issues such as affirmative action and educational vouchers to conform to the wishes of interest groups important to the party.
Some speak of him as the heir to Scoop Jackson’s legacy and leader of this wing of the Democratic party. But that “wing” has long ago flown away… There is no evidence that he had “moderating influence” on his Democratic colleagues. He had a vote, but no influence.
For businesses and trade associations looking for influence in the nation’s capital, what the race really points to is a continuation of a long trend in American politics away from geographically based parties to ideologically based parties.
In effect, American politics, which were always driven by regional and parochial concerns, are becoming more like European politics with ideologically more consistent parties. So there is really no place for conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans. Remember Joe Lieberman won for the senate in his first race with the endorsement of well known conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., who thought it more important to rid the Republican party of liberal Republican incumbent Llowell Weicker than to help the party capture more seats.
In fact you may see this trend to ideological consistency heat up on August 12th when the most liberal Republican in the Senate, Lincoln Chaffee, may lose a primary himself against a more conservative opponent.
Win or lose, the trend is clear. When you had a large group of conservative southern Democrats and liberal northeast Republicans, bipartisan deals were very frequent and interest groups were expected to work both sides of the aisle. As the parties became more ideologically homogeneous, the important battles will take place within each party, and the parties will increasingly demand that interest groups declare allegiance. Playing both sides of the street, when control of the country is at stake, will be seen as bad form.
Besides, the membership of trade associations won’t tolerate it. It is one thing for a trade association to support a member of Congress because he is on your side on some parochial issue, when that issue gets lost in the midst of a robust debate over larger issues. But if the membership realizes that the association supports a given candidate in the hopes of organizing the House or the Senate along party lines contrary to the members’ beliefs and interests on major issues — war and peace, income tax, etc. — in order to win approval on small issues — pesticide regulation, funding for pet programs, etc. — the membership will object.
So Joe Lieberman’s loss means that the parties will be more ideologically consistent, and anyone seeking favors will do well to pick sides.