Monday, August 14, 2006

Republicans are using the terror plot news and Lieberman’s defeat to paint Dems as weak. But the Connecticut result doesn’t bode well for Republicans

Fear Factor
Republicans are using the terror plot news and Lieberman’s defeat to paint Dems as
By Eleanor Clift

Aug. 11, 2006 - The foiled terrorist plot to explode airliners over the Atlantic reminds voters that the horrors of warfare they see unfolding on their television screens in Iraq and Lebanon could yet come home to America. There is no doubting the seriousness of the threat the British security forces uncovered, yet there is something disquieting about the way Republicans jumped on the story to reinforce their message coming out of the Connecticut primary that anti-war Democrats can’t be trusted with national security.

This week’s victory of political unknown Ned Lamont over Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman prompted a familiar refrain from the GOP playbook about a party hijacked by its left wing, too weak to respond to terrorism, stuck in the Vietnam era of George McGovern. Never mind that more than 30 years have passed since McGovern ran for president on an anti-war platform. His name is still a potent symbol along with such phrases as cut and run, which the GOP is hammering home to voters in a lame defense of the Iraq war.

“They’ve been playing that angle so long, the politics of fear,” McGovern told NEWSWEEK in a telephone interview from Montana, where he is spending the summer. “Nixon used to say people don’t vote on faith; they vote on fear. For 50 years, they used the fear of communism to beat Democrats and liberals and to discourage any kind of dissent. I hope we don’t have 50 years of terrorism for them to do the same thing.” If Lieberman stays in the race as an Independent, he will carry the GOP’s message that the Democrats have returned to the days of McGovern, and that there is no room in the party for a pro-war, muscular Democrat. “They’ve done that for 50 years—saying Democrats are soft on communism, now they’re saying Democrats aren’t tough enough on terrorism. That argument is beginning to wear thin,” says McGovern, who served in World War Two as a bomber pilot.

Republicans are whistling past the proverbial graveyard if they think the Connecticut results bode well for them. The high turnout reflects voter anger with the war and with President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress, meaning that Rep. Chris Shays and two other moderate Republicans in the state will likely be swept away in the tide of anger come November. “Bush is poison; that’s the overarching message of this election,” says Paul Equale, a Democratic lobbyist. “Everything else is parlor talk.” Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel, who chairs the Democratic congressional campaign committee, called Lieberman Bush’s “love child.” His point is that the election is a referendum on George Bush, “and the person standing closest to Bush gets burned,” a spokesman explained.

Democrats desperately want Lieberman to step aside and not create a sideshow that diverts attention from Bush. But that will take finesse backed up by poll numbers. “Democrats need to take it easy on Lieberman, not go and hammer on him 12 hours after he’s eked out a defeat that’s much narrower than was forecast,” a party strategist told NEWSWEEK. “Better to wait for the court of public opinion and build a prima facie case with the right messenger [to deliver it]: Bill Clinton, [Connecticut Senator] Chris Dodd—or better yet, someone who has resonance with Hadassah [Lieberman’s wife.] She’s got a major say in this.” That will take time as well as Lieberman’s realization that winning as a pro-war Independent is unlikely in the current climate. “Some things in politics are done in a flash; some are done more glacially; this is closer to glacial,” says the strategist.

Hillary Clinton got out ahead of the storm with her sharp attack last week on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Critics on the left called her an opportunist, but in the world of politics, is there anybody who isn’t? “The way she took on Rumsfeld was great for her,” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “She took on the manager rather than the war itself—how it’s administered. “You criticize the process rather than putting out an alternative.” Luntz says if he were strategizing for the Democrats, he would keep the party’s more strident anti-war voices in the background and put [Illinois Senator] Barack Obama on television. “It’s one thing to be anti-war and another to be seen on the fringe,” he says.

Hillary supported Lieberman in the primary, but wrote Lamont a $5,000 check from her HILLPAC the day after the election. “Maybe this will put a little spine in the backs of Democrats,” says McGovern. Hillary and Bill worked on McGovern’s presidential campaign in ’72, and he says he has “lasting personal affection for her,” but doesn’t like her careful positioning on the war and wishes she were “a little more gutsy.” What Hillary is doing works for now; it won’t work for the primaries in ’08. A lot will change by then, and if the Bush administration gets the message, there may not be a war for Democrats to kick around.