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A Post-Primary Look at Political Bedfellows

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For analysis on the Connecticut race and other primaries, we turn to our regular contributors, E.J. Dionne, he's a columnist for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times. So glad you're here. We have lots to talk about today.

Mr. E.J. Dionne (The Washington Post): We do.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Indeed.

NORRIS: David, leading up to the election, you referred to this race as a liberal inquisition. Your reaction now to the results and Lieberman's decision to run as an independent candidate.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I do think it's significant. I think, you know, it's the product of a series of long trends. The first is the polarization of the parties, which has made it very hard to be in the center. And the second is the war against Islamic extremism, which has exacerbated a lot of those fissures.

NORRIS: Now, I noticed you almost said war against Iraq and you stopped yourself.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, that is part of the war against Iraq, Islamic extremism. And that has exacerbated the split, driven some people to the right, some people to the left. Made it very hard to be in the center. Lieberman is stuck there in the center. And I think the three big strikes against him in the Democratic primary was first, on style. A lot of Democrats thought he wasn't aggressive enough. Second, obviously, Iraq. And third, Clinton. I still think there's some hangover on his speech about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

NORRIS: You mean his finger-wagging on that issue?

Mr. BROOKS: Exactly. So now what he's going to try to do is create a center, and we'll see if a center can survive. I personally think it can. I think there are two parties on the ballot, but there are three parties in America. There's the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the McCain/Lieberman Party. And I think we're going to see if that party can be born.

NORRIS: E.J., your thoughts on this, because Republicans are saying that this race shows that the Democratic Party has no room for moderates, for people who are willing to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. If there are three parties, indeed, does Joe Lieberman represent that third party?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, no and no. I think that the Republicans are trying to say there's no room for moderates in the Democratic Party when, in fact, moderates won primaries all over the country for Democrats who were left uncontested. Joe Lieberman was challenged by liberals in the party because he was the most vociferous supporter of the war in Iraq. I don't think supporting a preemptive war in Iraq makes you a moderate. In fact, that was a rather radical foreign policy step.

And I think what was striking in the voting yesterday is that Ned Lamont didn't just win with the votes of liberals, even though liberals were his base. He got nearly 4 votes in 10, according to The New York Times/CBS poll, from voters who described themselves as moderate or conservative Democrats. I think that shows a lot of disaffection.

Secondly, I think there is an anti-incumbent party out there. You know, we rarely lose, incumbents rarely lose in elections, let alone primaries. Yesterday, we had three incumbents lose primaries. Not only Joe Lieberman, but Joe Schwartz, a moderate Republican from Michigan, who lost to a very conservative candidate, Tim Wahlberg, which makes the case that there's no room for moderates in the Republican Party. And then Cynthia McKinney, who lost in Georgia for, I think, mostly personal reasons. There were no really big ideological issues in that race. So I think one lesson from yesterday is that the country is in a very ornery mood.

The interesting thing this morning is 24 hours ago, Ned Lamont was the rebel against the system and Joe Lieberman was the establishment candidate. All of a sudden Joe Lieberman, having lost this primary, wants to run as the antiestablishment candidate. Be interesting to see if he can pull off this switch so quick.

NORRIS: Now, you mentioned the polls. The polls also showed that 61% of the voters rejected the idea of Lieberman running as an independent. What does he face, then, as he tries to do exactly that? And is there anyone who might be able to talk him out of this, because I know a lot of people are trying right now. E.J. first.

Mr. DIONNE: I think it's going to be hard to talk him out of it, especially if you looked at his mood and body language last night when he gave this speech. It was clearly a carefully planned, carefully crafted appeal to the very middle that David is talking about. I think Chris Dodd, his colleague in the Senate who campaigned his heart out for him, is desperately trying to do it.

I think a lot of Democrats are gonna say, look, we disagreed with you on Iraq, and yet we went to bat with you and now, do you really want to challenge the Democratic party? But at this point, I think Lieberman is going to go full-steam ahead. I think the interesting question to ask here is if he believed all this stuff about non-partisanship, why didn't he run as an independent in the first place?

NORRIS: David?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, give it a shot. 65 percent don't want him to run as independent, but among his own voters, only about 20 percent don't want him to run as an independent. So if he can keep 40 percent of the voters that he had and then add all the independents, who are the biggest block in Connecticut, and then I think he'll win quite a lot of Republicans.

I wouldn't want to predict this race yet, but he has a good shot. Now remember where his base is. Lamont's base was among the rich, secular, highly educated people closer to New York, along the coast. His base was in the cities. It was among people without college degrees, among more middle-class people, who are not as much into a sort of highly ideological style of post-material politics. And those people I think are going to stay with him.

NORRIS: Now much was made of his relationship with President Bush, that moment at the State of the Union, the kiss. Is there a message there for Republicans out there who might be watching this and trying to figure out how they negotiate their own relationship with the president?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, there are two different issues here. One is it's a blue state. I think Bush's approval rating in Connecticut is 9 percent. So listen, the war is unpopular. Bush is unpopular. The question is whether you can articulate something that seems to your voters - and especially in blue states, if you're a Republican - as somehow coherent.

And to me, what Lieberman reminds me of is Tony Blair. Tony Blair could not get elected in any Democratic primary anymore in this country, but he is somebody who does have a vision, and I think it's still a winning centrist vision. And the Blair/Lieberman parallel I think is whether Lieberman should stay, it's still a strong vision for fighting the war, etcetera.

NORRIS: This is seen as a bellwether race. The results would send a message to both parties and determine how they might sort of follow the path to the mid-term elections. What is the message, first for the Democrats. E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think the message is there's an awful lot of disaffection with President Bush. I think if Joe Lieberman had given the speech he gave the Sunday before the election, in which he said the biggest lie being told about me by the other side is the false charge that I am George Bush's best friend and enabler, if he'd given that speech about a month before, I think he could've won this primary.

I think it was very clear toward the end people were starting to come back to him. I think there are a lot of people who disagreed with Joe Lieberman on a lot of issues who just kind of wanted to vote for him. And had he given them the room to do that, he would've won this primary.

So don't be President Bush's best friend and enabler, but I think the broader lesson is boy, it's going to be hard to be an incumbent out there. In most elections, it's a good thing to be an incumbent. This year, I think it's a bad thing to be an incumbent.

NORRIS: Does this help, though, in some way, if this solidifies the Democrats' image as the anti-war party? Does it help all those incumbents, Democratic incumbents who are out there running who authorized the war on Iraq?

Mr. DIONNE: Well I think they've done a much better job than Lieberman did of distancing themselves. The question is long-term, whether it, will a lot of people who see themselves as Lieberman Democrats, saw themselves as sort of Scoop Jackson Democrats, will they take a look at this and they'll just wander away?

And frankly, that's where I come from. So it's sort of personal to me, and that would be a long-term effect. And it'll really be up to Hillary Clinton, I suspect, to get those people back. And I think this, in 2008, will make her job a little more difficult, because the people who won with Lamont will be much more aggressive, much more self-confident, and they're not fans of her, particularly.

Mr. BROOKS: We're not talking here about abstractions. We're talking here about the Iraq war. And if the Iraq war had been better, well conceived from the beginning, if the war had been fought better, if we weren't in the hole that we are in in Iraq as a country right now, none of this would be happening. So there are a lot of these vague abstractions about the center, but the war in Iraq is the hard fact of American politics.

NORRIS: We don't have much time, but I just wonder if you both think it's interesting at all that we've talked about Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton and others coming into the state to help Joseph Lieberman. We didn't hear much from Al Gore.

Mr. DIONNE: No, and a lot of people are saying this will help Al Gore, encourage him to run. And remember, Joe Lieberman criticized Al Gore's populous campaign after the fact, even though he was his running mate.

NORRIS: Thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

NORRIS: E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post. He's also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.