Lamont Wins: Political Strategy Implications genre: Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Reshuffling the cards

One thing is for certain about gambling…once the dice have been cast, it is impossible to withdraw one’s bet. Like it or not, the Democratic Party, by proxy, may have placed it’s November election bet three months early in the state of Connecticut. While the Democratic voters of Connecticut have spoken…which is as it should be…they may not have the final word on the fate of their candidate or their Party…though they may well have written the script.

Thought Theater has cautioned that a high profile national effort to unseat Joe Lieberman could well provide Republicans with an opportunity to spin the midterm election as a choice between anti-war, anti-moderate leftward change agents or middle of the road pragmatists focused on a resolution in Iraq that prevents a further acceleration of instability and a heightened security threat at home.

Some might argue that this would be a false choice…and while that may be a plausible argument, it may not be one that can win the support of a majority of voters. Let me offer an elaboration to explain that possibility. I expect Republicans to immediately challenge Ned Lamont, and by association the Democratic Party, to outline their position with regards to Iraq.

In the last week Jim Dean, a Lamont supporter, was unable to clarify the conflicting answers previously provided by Lamont. The uncertainty on that issue provides an opening to question if the candidate…and some within the Party…have simply used the issue for political gain. Unfortunately, the fact that the Democratic Party has failed to offer and Lamont has struggled to endorse a cogent position on Iraq will allow Republicans to spin the Connecticut outcome in one of two ways. First, some background from the transcript of the August 6th. Meet the Press discussion that points out the uncertainty of both the Democrat’s and Lamont’s Iraq position:

MR. RUSSERT: ...and I’m trying to pin down exactly his position. This was June 22nd Hartford Courant. His campaign manager, Tom Swan, “said that Lamont backed the Reed-Levin plan"—that was a phased redeployment—“even though it was ‘watered down.’" And he said, “Lamont was ‘sympathetic’ to the John Kerry proposal" of a date-certain withdrawal, “but he wouldn’t necessarily vote for it, because he wants to be a uniter among Democrats."

Then the very next day, the same newspaper, I read this: “A second measure offered by John F. Kerry, D-Mass. ... would have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by July 1,2007 ... ‘I would have supported them both,’" meaning Kerry and the Reed-Levin. What happened in 24 hours, and what is his position? Is he for an immediate withdraw, date-certain of all troops?

MR. DEAN: Right. My feeling is that he’s signed on with the Democratic Party leadership to withdraw the troops—start withdrawing troops by the end of this year. The...

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think Kerry says all out by July of ‘07 that he would vote of Kerry? So that’s his position?

MR. DEAN: Right. Ned wants to get the troops out ASAP. I mean, we, we all do. And the thing about this is is that there’s been a lot of, you know, sort of back and forth in this on Congress. The Democrats—you know, he’s one of those Democrats that’s taking a stand to get the troops out, that he’s willing to stand up for that and take the heat for doing it. He’s willing to sign on to the leadership to start withdrawing the troops by the end of this year, and that is the kind of thing that we need to further this debate and to get the troops out, because if we don’t start standing up for these things we’re never going to get them home right now, if we listen to this sort of rhetoric from the administration about staying the course and all of that.

MR. RUSSERT: But would he have voted for John Kerry’s resolution to bring all troops home—all of them—by July of ‘07?

MR. DEAN: I’m not sure whether he would have or not.

MR. DAVIS: Can I comment, please? On the very same day he said he would support Kerry’s, then he said he wouldn’t support Kerry’s, then he said he supported Chris Dodd’s position, which was opposed to Kerry’s.

So how will the Republicans spin the Lamont (and by association the Democrats) position with regard to Iraq? In one scenario, they will argue that the Lamont uncertainty on the Iraq war is consistent with other Democrats…meaning he and most Democrats realize the war is unpopular and that the Democratic base wants to hear that their candidates support troop withdrawals within a specified timeframe. At the same time, Democratic candidates and even Lamont may be in a bind because they understand that it would be difficult to leave an unstable Iraq which might be portrayed as likely to deteriorate into a security risk…leaving America vulnerable.

In the other scenario, they will contend that Lamont’s uncertainty was necessary to avoid alienating more moderate Democrats in the primary race but that he is ultimately a far left anti-war activist who is fully committed to pushing for troop withdrawal regardless of the consequences. Essentially Republicans may well attempt to portray Lamont as the new champion of the Democratic Party that now represents the views of the extreme left…an outcome that Republicans will argue demonstrates the intention of many powerful Democrats to pull the Party and the country leftward in a time of increasing terror and security threats.

In both scenarios, Republicans will emphasize the Lamont comparison to Joe Lieberman and argue that Democrats have abandoned an interest in resolving the Iraq conflict in order to pander to their base and win elections at the expense of a secure America. They will argue Lieberman holds a mainstream view on national security and that while Lieberman may be critical of the execution of the war effort, he realizes that America must complete its objective if America is to remain safe and secure.

It will therefore be critical for Democrats and Lamont to have a clear position on Iraq. Regardless of the position, Republicans now have the ability to raise doubts as to Lamont as well as the Democratic Party. The fact that the race was so close and drew a huge voter turnout will also allow Republicans to paint the Democrats as a fully divided Party that simply cannot be trusted to assume responsibility for the nations security as it would be impossible for voters to know what the Party might do with regards to Iraq or the war on terror.

I’ve previously argued that the lack of a clear consensus Democratic Iraq policy…or one that simply states that the GOP plan is a failure…leaves the Party vulnerable to a classic Rovian manipulation and I feel no differently since the Lamont victory. The instinct to look at negative polling on the Iraq war and conclude that it portends a favorable Democratic outcome in November must be challenged.

The latest CNN poll released today indicates that 60% of Americans are opposed to the war in Iraq. That number attracts headlines and airtime but it is an insufficient view of voter sentiment. A similar Gallup poll released within the last week indicates that 55% of Americans favor a full withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Of that number 19% prefer an immediate withdrawal and 36% prefer a full withdrawal by August of 2007. The details of the CNN poll indicate that 61% believe that at least some troops should be withdrawn by the end of the year. Of that number, 26% favored a withdrawal of all troops, 35% said not all troops should be withdrawn, and another 34% said the same troop level should be maintained.

CNN also asked about a timeframe for withdrawal and 57% favored setting a timeframe for withdrawal, 40% were opposed. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, respondents were asked about whether the U.S. would win the war in Iraq. 47% said the U.S. would either “definitely win" or “probably win" while 48% responded that the U.S. could either “not win" or “could win – but will not win".

In trying to gauge the meaning of this data, I make three observations. One, people are troubled by the war and that anxiety leads them to oppose the war in general…essentially they want to remove the anxiety and the easiest way is to oppose, or in other words, end the troubled war effort. Two, despite opposition to the war, a majority of people realize it is impractical to withdraw immediately, or in other words, while they don’t like the war, they realize it may have to continue for some period of time. Three, they still hold to the notion of winning the war regardless of their opposition and their desire to end the conflict.

From this information, I conclude that sentiment isn’t necessarily likely to predict what a voter will do. While voters feel the war is being mishandled, a majority still support continuing the effort. At the same time they will continue to reevaluate their position at each changing event and their opinion remains malleable and flexible.

So how does that relate back to the Connecticut election and therefore the upcoming midterm elections? Generally speaking, the race offered a relatively clear choice to Democratic voters…a choice between a basic opposition to the war and some plan for withdrawal versus a position that supports the original premise of the war and still favors completing the mission although with some uncertainty as to a continuation of the Bush strategy or some revised strategy.

In many ways the race provided a near perfect environment to test the veracity of the polling data (and keep in mind that Connecticut sentiment may well exceed the national sentiment in opposition to the war). Add the national attention to the equation and the premise that Lieberman is a Bush war apologist and that Lamont is the antithesis to that position and it is difficult to envision a more appropriate model. The outcome seems to support the notion that the ability to finish the war (can we win, should we win, do we have the will to win…where the split says 47% think we will win and 48% either think we can’t win or could win but won’t) is ultimately the better predictor of how a voter will behave in the ballot box…supported by the closely divided Connecticut spread of less than 4% (roughly 52% to 48%).

From the Connecticut outcome, one could reasonably argue that if nearly half of Democrats remain hesitant to support a position that simply calls for a withdrawal from Iraq, then independent and Republican voters will be even less inclined to support what they may perceive as a left leaning anti-war Party. The percentage of independent and Republican voters that would be needed to defeat a nearly evenly split Democratic voting block isn’t that significant and as such it leaves Democrats vulnerable on Iraq and the war on terror if they fail to put forth a clear and concise plan that can overcome voter hesitation to concede defeat. I believe this means Democrats will need more than just an anti-war message to win in November.

My conclusion is that Connecticut has provided a preview of actual voter sentiment and a means with which to devise a November election strategy. Connecticut may well be a perfect microcosm for how the midterm election is likely to unfold. The Party that recognizes what is available to intuit from Connecticut may well have the best opportunity to prevail in November…albeit subject to the likely potential for the occurrence of unknown events.

In the interest of achieving Democratic control of the House or the Senate, I am convinced that the Democratic Party and Ned Lamont must take the lead in proposing alternate and specific plans for a successful exit from Iraq. Should we allow Republicans to frame the topic, I fear Democrats may suffer the same fate that we encountered in 2004 when Rove and the RNC were able to portray the Democratic position as one inclined to concede defeat in Iraq and therefore a weakened position on national security and the war on terror…a position I’m convinced the American public is not yet willing to embrace and that I believe has been supported by polling data as well as the Connecticut outcome.

To a large extent, we Democrats have placed our November bet and I accept that reality. It is now more critical than ever that we play the cards we hold wisely and with a full appreciation of what is at stake. I would have preferred a different approach and I’ve stated as much here at Thought Theater. Nonetheless, we are where we are and as always, my goal is a Democratic victory in November. My efforts herein and henceforth will be focused on discussing and developing a strategy that accepts the current circumstances…fully hopeful that all Democrats will be amenable to a meaningful dialogue that can separate bias from reasoned debate in order to achieve our mutual goal…unseating Republican control. It is time to move on together.

Daniel DiRito | August 9, 2006 | 12:40 PM
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1 On August 9, 2006 at 2:02 PM, gpetrus wrote —

Caught your link at Americablog. Great article.

With 60% now opposing Iraq, what I cannot understand, is how being opposed to the war is tied into not being strong on national security. And if it is(as now being proposed by the Republicans) how is this a good issue for them?

2 On August 10, 2006 at 2:30 PM, Bob Griendling wrote —

Nice post.

I, too, believe the Democrats need a coherent position, not focused on Iraq, but the broader foreign policy picture. But I don’t believe we should put too much emphasis on a detailed set of deadlines and timetables. Getting into the weeds loses most voters and risks finding fault with the specifics and thereby discrediting the entire approach.

I think the foreign policy narrative must project a clearly different vision. It should include a unequivocal statement on maintain a strong military to protect Americans. But it also needs a vision for how we reverse the radical Islamic movement. First and foremost, there should be a clear statement that reconciliation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of the Democrats’ approach. We need to move the argument beyond a “war on terror" and toward a “war of principles" that includes the just objectives of the Arab and Muslim people. And I think such an approach will have the majority of Americans, including Jewish Americans, behind it. If what we’ve spent in Iraq had been spent on rebuilding the economies of some Arab populations and challenging “friendly" Muslim countries to open their societies to democracy while we invest in alternative energy sources, we would have taken the air of much of sails of Islamic terrorists and given our “friends" to moderate their societies.

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