Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Sixth Point (Part Three of the Lieberman Project)

Lieberman appeared at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in East Hampton on September 25, 2006 to deliver a speech billed by his campaign as his first major speech on the Iraq war since the Democratic primary in August. Following his primary defeat Lieberman had avoided the subject of the war as much as possible, apparently believing that addressing the Iraq issue promised little in the way of additional support from indepedents and republicans and posed the risk of further erosion in his support among Democrats.

Throughout the first half of September the polls in Connecticut appeared to confirm the wisdom of Lieberman's stategy. Polls by Survey USA and Public Opinions Strategies (a republican polling outfit) gave Lieberman 13 and 16 point leads, respectively. However, in the week before Lieberman’s VFW address polls from Rasmussen and American Research Group each gave Lieberman a two point lead – essentially a dead heat.

Lieberman might have been able to maintain radio silence on Iraq indefinitely had circumstances in Iraq been different, but a steadily rising tide of sectarian violence in Iraq throughout late summer virtually demanded a policy statement from Lieberman, now the most prominent defender of Bush’s Iraq policy.

Lieberman presented a “ten point plan” for Iraq in his address at the VFW. The policies offered in the plan bore a distinct resemblance to those Lieberman had advocated in the WSJ op-ed eleven months before, even though conditions in Iraq had changed profoundly for the worse. Many of Lieberman’s new proposals would have been derisively consigned by his pro-war allies on the right to the “Kumbaya” category - an international “crisis conference” among the U.S. , European and “Arab” countries; a “National Compact” among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds ensuring that “the political, social, and religious rights of all are protected by law”; and at home the convening of a “bipartisan Iraq working group” in the next Congress. Whatever the merits of Lieberman's call for conferences, compacts and bipartisanship in Congress, these ideas were unlikely to hold any significant appeal to Democratic voters looking for signs of Lieberman's moderation of his pro-war positions.

There were two elements of Lieberman’s ten point plan, however, that were genuinely substantive and designed to appeal to vacillating democrats in Connecticut.

Point One urged the firing of defense secretary Rumsfeld. While hardly new for Lieberman, who first called for Rumsfeld’s ouster in 2003, it represented the most recent and definitive statement from Lieberman after three years of issuing alternately critical and supportive statements on Rumsfeld.

The second element of the ten point plan that was arguably new was Point Six, which called for continuing the strategy (instituted more than a year before) of embedding U.S. troops in Iraqi military units as a means of both facilitating the training and effectiveness of the Iraqis and permitting a drawdown of U.S. troop levels in Iraq. The WSJ op-ed in November 2005 had also urged increased embedding and touted it as a means of reducing troop levels in Iraq. Point Six went a step further, however, and stated that increased embedding “should be done by redeploying existing troops, not adding new troops to the region.”

Lieberman’s VFW address received scant attention in Connecticut and, other than Lieberman’s latest call for Rumsfeld’s firing, made barely a ripple in the national press. The rejection of increased troop levels in Iraq went almost completely unnoticed. At the time, John McCain was the only politician of national stature discussing troop increases, and it would be another two months before the republican’s shattering mid-term losses and the unveiling of the Iraq Study Group report would cause the Bush administration to initiate a national debate on a policy of escalation, and from this perspective the lack of attention to Lieberman’s new stance should not have been surprising. From another perspective, however, Lieberman’s coming out against McCain's proposal should have been of some interest to a national media with a penchant for stories of policy divisions between putative political allies. For his part, Lieberman seemed content to let his opposition to increased troop levels fly under the political radar.

In light of both the absence in late September of any pressing national debate on increased troop levels and Lieberman’s reversal of his opposition to increased troop levels in Iraq almost immediately after the election, his decision to stake out a position against troop increases is curious and raises a host of questions:

Did the narrowing lead reflected in the polls of the Connecticut race released in the third week of September suggest to Lieberman the need to further appeal to the anti-war wing of the Democratic party?

Did Lieberman believe that the accelerating chaos in Iraq presented the potential for increasing anti-war sentiment in October, requiring a pre-emptive fortifying of his flank on the Iraq issue?

Did Lieberman see a chance to hedge his exposure to rising anti-war sentiment in October by conceding a policy option that he didn’t believe would be in play after the election anyway? Might he have reasoned that (a) an overwhelming democratic victory in the mid-terms would take the option off the table, and (b) retention of either or both houses of Congress by the republicans would give the Bush administration a free hand to pursue escalation without need of Lieberman’s support?

Attempts to reverse engineer Lieberman’s decision to pre-emptively reject increased troop levels in Iraq quickly approach quadratic equation levels of complexity – there are simply too many political variables. What is clear, however, is that a combination of circumstances that would have been exceedingly difficult to foresee in late September (i.e., a democratic landslide that gave the democrats tenuous control of the senate, making the newly independent Lieberman the fulcrum of power, and the Bush administration’s counterintuitive decision to escalate the war in response to an overwhelming electoral rebuke of its Iraq policies) gave Lieberman both the ability to repudiate his pre-election opposition to additional troops without fear of political retribution from his own party, and the opportunity to seize center stage in the debate over Iraq policy.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a politician, particularly one whose career had been built on triangulating between left and right, would find it difficult to resist the political opportunities presented by Bush’s decision to go "double or nothing" in Iraq: the opportunity to further distance himself from the party he felt had spurned him, to advance the prospects of a centrist, bipartisan alliance with McCain, and to exploit to maximum advantage his position as the “swing vote” in the Senate. What is surprising, however, is that a politician as skilled as Lieberman would, within mere days of the election, move so quickly to reject his own campaign counsel on the issue of troop levels in Iraq, eschewing even the most basic and time honored political rituals that traditionally have attended any jettisoning of campaign promises, long held positions or other political commitments in favor of naked political calculation; rituals that have evolved over generations of the American political class and are performed not with any expectation that they will obscure the pure expediency of the act, or fool anyone of even passing percipience, but to allow the political media and one's core political supporters to credibly maintain that you wouldn't sell your soul for a modest bump in the polls.

Foremost among these rituals is the "decent interval" that should elapse between the the most recent statement of a political commitment and its repudiation, an interval that allows for at least the theoretical possibility (if not a plausible argument) that the politician's reversal is a principled and justifiable reaction to exogenous (i.e., non-political) circumstances. This theoretical possibility is sufficient, under consensus Washington rules, to insulate one's self against a charge that otherwise might be levelled for having said one thing and then done another, for having taken one position before the voters and then another incompatible position in governing or legislating. It is this "theoretical possibility" standard that accounts for the unwillingness of the media to label as lies even the most brazen deceptions.
Whether out of pique or a simple lack of regard for the sensibilities of the democratic voters in Connecticut he felt had humiliated him last August, Lieberman had no sooner returned to Washington than he adopted positions on Iraq policy irreconcilable with the policies he had advocated during the campaign. The decent interval was not observed. Lieberman's political solecism, however, went largely unremarked upon in the media, if not unnoticed.


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