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Blow to Cold War Liberalism: Lieberman's Defeat

Comment by Mark Weisbrot

The defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman in recent Democratic primary in Connecticut is a historic event. It is something on the order of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision in March 1968 not to seek re-election because of his unpopularity due to the Vietnam War. Even if Senator Lieberman decides to run as an independent in November, he will no longer represent the Democratic Party on the Sunday TV national network news programs. He has been de-throned. And it is because of his support for President Bush and the Iraq War. That is what matters.

 

Sure it helped that Ned Lamont, Lieberman’s challenger, was rich enough to kick in a few million dollars of his own money. But Lieberman still outspent him by millions. Senator Lieberman also dug his own grave by going overboard in his support for President Bush and the war. In its decision to officially endorse Ned Lamont, the New York Times editorial board cited a list of outrages that included Lieberman’s disregard for the Geneva Conventions and his support for the administration’s holding of foreign citizens without due process.

* Birth pangs of new US foreign policy?
But Lieberman is one of this country’s most influential and well-connected Democratic Senators. If it can happen to him, it could happen to others. As Lamont pulled ahead of Lieberman last week, pro-war Senator Hillary Clinton veered left and gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a harsh drubbing at Senate hearings, calling for his resignation.

In the language of Condoleezza Rice, these are the birth pangs of a new US foreign policy. It will take some years, but the Cold War liberalism that has dominated the Democratic party since the end of 1950s is going to expire.

For now, the Bush team can simply substitute the “War on Terror” for the “threat of Communism,” and support any military adventure or spending they choose on the basis of this pretext. But Democrats who do likewise, and who sacrifice other people’s children to fight unnecessary wars, will risk meeting the fate of Joe Lieberman. And the party itself will increasingly find Cold War liberalism to be a losing political strategy. It already is. The Democrats lost the Congress in 2002 because Republicans were able to displace all the domestic issues voters normally care most about – including jobs and the economy – by creating an international “crisis” around Iraq’s fictional weapons of mass destruction.
Four years later, the Iraq war has become such a disaster that voters overwhelmingly see it as the most important issue in this year’s election. But Cold War Democrats offer them no clear alternative.

* No shortage of "enemies"
There is no shortage of “enemies” that can be used for domestic political purposes. Iran, Syria, and North Korea are all possible military targets. And our present foreign policy will continue to produce terrorists who hate us, faster than Al-Qaeda or anyone else can recruit them.

A Democratic party that promotes the premises of this framework – that the United States can and must rule the world by force – will continue to lose to a Republican party that is seen by the “swing” voters as more likely to do what is necessary to accomplish this goal.
Even if today’s Cold War Democratic leadership were to take power, by some miracle of Republican self-destruction, they would not hold it for long. Unlike the Cold War era, when they enacted Medicare and Medicaid, and reduced poverty despite wasting trillions of dollars on an unnecessary arms race and wars, Democrats who are committed to empire today won’t be able to deliver much at home. The gross federal debt was 43.5 percent of our economy and falling at the height of the Vietnam War; today it is over 65 percent and will surely rise as the economy slows. We are already cutting health care spending to pay for the Iraq war. Cold War liberalism is no longer a viable economic program either.

It took seven years of war after President Johnson threw in the towel before US troops left Vietnam. During that time tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were killed. We can only hope that our political leaders – of both parties – can learn the same lesson a lot faster this time.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), in Washington DC.

Posted: 10 August 2006.

Recommended citation: Weisbrot, Mark (2006) 'Blow to Cold War Liberalism: Lieberman's Defeat', World Economy & Development In Brief, 10 August (www.wdev.eu)

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