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Jewish World Review
July 31, 2006
/ 6 Menachem-Av, 5766
Will the Center Hold? A moderate senator and a far-left congresswoman face tough Democratic primary challenges
John H. Fund
Two primaries next week will tell a lot about the strength of the hard-left wing of the Democratic party. In Connecticut, moderate Sen. Joe Lieberman faces a challenger whose single issue is opposition to the Iraq war. In Georgia, ultraliberal Rep. Cynthia McKinney faces a runoff against a moderate opponent who is wooing liberals with the slogan: "It's time to restore respect to progressivism." Despite all the hype about the power of the liberal blogosphere, the odds are better than even that voters will reject the more liberal candidate in both races and send the message that the sensible center still has a home among Democrats.
Conventional wisdom has it that Senator Joe Lieberman will lose his Aug. 8 primary. A mid-July Quinnipiac poll showed businessman Ned Lamont leading the three-term incumbent by 51% to 47% among likely primary voters. Democratic consultant Bob Shrum thinks the race is over and that Mr. Lamont can even defeat Mr. Lieberman should the senator run an independent. He says a Lamont primary victory will ensure that "we'll see by the end of 2007 virtually every Democratic [presidential] candidate, including Hillary Clinton, favoring a date certain for withdrawal" from Iraq.
Not so fast. First, Mr. Lamont's lead is within the Quinnipiac poll's four-point margin of error. Secondly, it's notoriously difficult to identify likely voters for a low-turnout primary in the dog days of August. Third, there are signs that Mr. Lamont may have "peaked too soon" in his challenge to the incumbent. He is now facing increased scrutiny on the thinness of his political résumé, his unfamiliarity with many issues, and his refusal to release his tax returns. At the same time, Mr. Lieberman's campaign is showing signs of renewed vigor.
The senator is arguing that the violence in Lebanon shows the need for his longstanding tough and uncompromising stand against terrorism. Voters are also being blanketed with reminders of the constituent service he has performed for them.
Last week the Lieberman campaign played its big card: Bill Clinton appeared in Connecticut to endorse Mr. Lieberman, an old political ally going back 1970, when Mr. Clinton, a student at Yale Law School joined Mr. Lieberman's first campaign for state Senate. The former senator's praise for his friend's record on economic and social issues helps defuse critics such as the New York Times, which endorsed Mr. Lamont yesterday after calling Mr. Lieberman, the Democratic Party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, "one of the Bush administration's most useful allies."
Mr. Clinton's remarks have already been turned into a campaign commercial for Mr. Lieberman. Former Clinton political director Doug Sosnik has also helped recruit an experienced get-out-the-vote organizer to ensure the Senator's elderly and working-class supporters get to the polls.
Team Clinton is putting itself out because it know that a victory by the antiwar Angry Left would force Hillary Clinton to move further from the center than would be wise in the 2008 presidential primaries. Mr. Lieberman puts the issue squarely: "The group that is opposing me . . . does not really believe in the same kind of politics that Bill Clinton believes in, that brought us two wins in two national elections. They are just negative."
Negative certainly describes the approach that Georgia's Rep. Cynthia McKinney has taken to politics. "I'm attracted to fights," she proclaimed after her first election, in a 60% black district in 1992. She proceeded to prove that by picking fights with both Bill Clinton and Al Gore while they were still in office. First she claimed that White House guards working for Mr. Clinton had refused to show her respect. Then she accused Mr. Gore during his bid for the presidency in 2000 of having a low "Negro tolerance level."
Under President Bush, she upped the volume of her outrage when she called for an investigation into whether the president had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2002, primary voters threw her out of office, but when her seat became open again in 2004 she made a successful comeback with a low-key campaign that relied on her name recognition.
That recognition was increased earlier this year, when Ms. McKinney physically assaulted a Capitol police officer who tried to question her when she bypassed security without displaying a pin that identifies her as a member of Congress.
Black voters may have finally had enough of her political antics. Last month, former county commissioner Hank Johnson won 45% of the vote, just behind Ms. McKinney's showing, forcing next week's runoff. Mr. Johnson called Ms. McKinney's behavior "an embarrassment to the people of the district" and vowed to "take care of home first" by focusing on local issues rather than foreign policy. To buttress his point, Rep. McKinney was joined at her primary-night rally by Cindy Sheehan, the extremist antiwar activist whose son was killed in Iraq.
Incumbents who score below 50% in an initial primary seldom recover to win the runoff. That is likely to be Ms. McKinney's fate. A new Insider Advantage poll shows Mr. Johnson leading by 25 points, with a third of the vote undecided. Cynthia Tucker, the liberal editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution, has assailed Ms. McKinney for "loopy antics" and "recklessly playing the race card." Even some of her staunch liberal allies are abandoning her this time. Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Tikkkun magazine, told the Jewish newspaper the Forward that this time he won't endorse her because he "hasn't been sufficiently convinced that her criticisms of Israel are not mixed with anti-Semitism."
Two primaries do not make a trend. But if next week, political commentators wake up and find Ms. McKinney has been ousted a second time from Congress while Mr. Lieberman has overcome the vitriolic onslaught of the liberal bloggers, they will have to acknowledge, that reports of the death of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party have been greatly exaggerated.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2006, John H. Fund