The Duck of Minerva

The Lamont Paradox


15 August 2006

Ned Lamont’s primary victory over Joe-Mentum Lieberman was certainly seen as a watershed political moment, where the anti-war message toppled an incumbent. Given that incumbents in Congress have something like a 90-95% success rate in re-election (actually, I think its higher than that, but i’m blogging at 6 am and not inclined to look it up), defeating a sitting Senator, former Presidential candidate and Vice-Presidential nominee is a pretty big deal. Its clear that the anti-war / anti-Bush vote is significant, not just within the Democratic party, but within Republican ranks as well.

But Democrats need to be cautious about how they plan to play the terrorism issue in the fall elections.

Today’s NYT gives a preview of the Democratic strategy for the fall:

“During the 2002 and 2004 elections, Republicans tried to sow fear in the American public by claiming that they were the only ones who could keep America safe,” Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said in an e-mail message to supporters. “This from the same crowd that has driven Iraq to the brink of disaster, left Osama Bin Laden on the loose to attack again and continues to ignore our security needs at home.”

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee… said that Mr. Bush’s public standing was cemented in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and that Republican efforts to improve the president’s image by emphasizing terror could not overcome the damage done by the bungled response to the storm.

“Katrina equals competency,” he said.

And I largely agree with this. But, as last the aftermath of uncovering last week’s terror plot in London continues to unfold, two things remain clear.

1- Unknown and unforseen events such as this are a huge wild-card in the elections. Both parties will try to react and spin, but history shows that hightened fear from terrorist attacks benefits the President.

2- The Administration–not the President but everyone else from the VP on down the party ranks– will push this relentlessly.

From Dan Froomkin’s blog at the Wash Post:

Voters who supported Lamont’s antiwar campaign in the Democratic primary were giving “the Al Qaeda types” exactly what they wanted, Cheney said. And as a result the Democratic Party, he asserted, now stands for a wholesale retreat in the broader campaign against terror….

Evan Thomas writes in Newsweek: “White House aides insisted that Cheney was not trying to exploit the latest terror plot for political advantage.”

Cheney had been briefed on the plot, but the aides “claimed that at the time he spoke, he was unaware that arrests were imminent. Even so, these officials were somewhat hard put to explain why the normally press-shy Cheney volunteered to talk to wire reporters and offer his analysis on the national-security implications of a Lamont victory.”…

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: “In a telephone call with journalists, Vice President Cheney came close to suggesting that there is a new political blog out there called ‘al-Qaeda for Ned.’ His words have not received nearly the attention they deserve.”

And he gives countless more examples.

If Iraq continues to “trend down” (as our favorite fantasy baseball analysts like to say) and if there are no more al-Qaeda type attacks, then the Democrats are probably in a good position to capitalize on the public’s discontent with the administration’s abject failures in these areas and make significant gains in Congress.

Though this is the most likely scenario, it is far from certain. Any major terrorist type event– directed at US interests or at key US allies abroad or in Iraq– has the potential to radically reshape the playing field. While the electorate seems to be less receptive to Administration scare-tatics on terrorism, fear following a real attack is a real wild-card for the fall.

Lamont’s win has really painted the Dems into this corner. Not necessarily a bad corner to be in, but its a corner nonetheless.

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