Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Iraq Effect
The Iraq Effect
Zarqawi’s death is good news, but America’s war in the Middle East still looms large over U.S. politics. Just ask Joe Lieberman.
By Eleanor Clift

June 9, 2006 - The death of the top-ranking operative of Al Qaeda in Iraq is a welcome moment of clarity in a war desperately in search of a rationale. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi personified the face of evil and was controversial even among jihadists for staging large-scale attacks on civilians. The news out of Iraq has been gloomy for so long that Zarqawi’s demise, along with the agreement on the remaining cabinet ministers to fill out the new government, may buy some time with the American public, and give President Bush the breathing space to figure out what to do next when he meets with his advisers at Camp David next week.

Bush was subdued and didn’t overplay his hand when he stood in the Rose Garden early Thursday morning to commend U.S. forces for the successful bomb attack on the house where Zarqawi had been meeting with his lieutenants. The Jordanian-born Zarqawi led the foreign jihadists in Iraq and incited the sectarian violence against the Shia-majority population. His death is a major symbolic blow for the insurgency and a big win in the propaganda war for the West. But the carnage and the mayhem that defines Iraq today will not stop with Zarqawi’s passing, a reality that Bush acknowledged, along with a reflection of lessons learned from earlier victories that turned out to be less than enduring.

Weeks ago Karl Rove said Iraq “looms over everything.” That’s true not only for Bush but also increasingly for Democrats. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, is facing the first serious challenge in his 18-year Senate career. According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, Lieberman’s margin of victory dropped eight points in the last month, from 65 to 57 percent, and his favorable rating among Democrats slipped to 49 percent, a red flag for the upcoming Aug. 8 primary. Wealthy telecommunications executive Ned Lamont polled just 19 percent a month ago against Lieberman; he’s now at 32 percent and the darling of a growing antiwar movement to take back the party. The primary is in the dead of summer when only the most passionate turn out, which bodes ill for Lieberman, a Bush ally on the war and a middle-of-the-roader on most issues.

Here’s the dilemma for Lieberman: He could lose the primary, but if he ran as an independent, he would win. He polls much higher among all voters than Democrats. To get on the ballot as an independent, Lieberman needs 30,000 signatures, which would be no problem. The catch is that under the rules, he would have to present them on Aug. 9, the day after the primary. But if he starts to gather signatures now, he likely loses the primary.

“It’s like saying to Democrats, ‘I’m going to run anyway.’ It’s a slap in the face and an admission of weakness,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. On the other hand, if Lieberman doesn’t follow through on a fallback position, “He’s gambling with his Senate career,” says Bennett. Party regulars worry that if Lamont is their candidate, he could lose and take Democratic House challengers with him. Republicans have an appealing local district attorney waiting in the wings if Lamont is the candidate. History shows from George McGovern to Howard Dean that doves are not rewarded at the ballot box. If Lieberman were to lose the primary, or to start collecting signatures, it would be evidence of the power of the antiwar grass roots—something the Democratic leadership has been working hard to keep a lid on.

The death of Zarqawi is a reminder of how fast things can change in a war Americans still want to win. GOP pundit Monica Crowley told talk-show host Don Imus, “This news is better than sex.” The GOP was also heartened by former Republican congressman Brian Bilbray’s win in a special election to succeed Randy (Duke) Cunningham, who’s in prison for taking $2.4 million in kickbacks from defense-industry lobbyists. Democrats had hoped to take the seat in a show of momentum that could carry them to power in November. Bilbray squeaked through with a 49 percent plurality. The culture-of-corruption message that Democrats cultivated for months may not yield partisan advantage. There’s too much bad behavior to go around. The Republican excesses with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the K Street Project are more systemic, but the images associated with Democrats are flashier—money stashed in Rep. William Jefferson’s freezer along with a video of the offending congressman accepting a bribe, a picture of Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid at a boxing match after accepting free ringside seats from a state agency trying to influence him.

A new Democracy Corps poll says Democrats are “under performing,” and if they fail to show voters something more, they could fall victim to a “stay-away protest vote.” Positive views of the party have actually declined over the past few months, and the advantages Democrats have are “not big enough for Democrats to recapture the House or Senate,” according to the poll. It’s sobering but not surprising for a party still adrift in Bush’s war.