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Sunday, July 16, 2006

"Loyalty" in politics

There is an article in The Mercury News today (Liberals angry at Boxer for supporting Lieberman: War, Party Loyalty at Center of Debate) about the backlash Senator Barbara Boxer is experiencing from liberals and anti-war activists in California and around the country over her support of Senator Joseph Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the war, in his bid for re-election. Leiberman faces a challenge from Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate, in the primary.

This debate is occurring all over the country as Democrats are searching for their identity and fighting for the future of the party. The dictates of the party leadership don't always coincide with the wishes of its grassroots activists. The debate raises some important questions for the party about where its candidates' loyalties should reside.

Party

For Boxer, the overriding argument to support Lieberman appears to be her "loyalty" to the Democratic party or, more accurately, to what the party leadership has determined is in the best interests of the party. The primary concern for the party leadership right now is winning back control of the Congress in the November elections. Their argument tends to be, "Let's get control back first, and then we can worry about issues later."

The argument as it relates to Lieberman specifically is that he would have an easy win in November as the nominee, so party resources could be spent elsewhere. A Lamont victory will mean more work and a difficult fight, especially since Lieberman has threatened to run as an Independent if he is defeated in the primary. The irony here is that Lieberman's loyalty to the party is so thin he's willing to bolt it at the first opportunity.

Issues

In the article, Boxer lists three issues that she is particularly interested in: the war, reproductive rights, and the environment. Lieberman, she argues, has been a strong ally of hers on the last two issues so he's earned her support. This is a pretty transparently false argument, in that Lamont supports her positions on those two issues as well, and is in agreement on the war. Also, in the article, it's mentioned that Democrats in Connecticut are strongly anti-war, so Lamont's position more accurately reflects the will of the party in the state.

Some argue that a party shouldn't have a single-issue litmus test, and I think that's a fair point. But it's not a matter of a 2 or 3 issue litmus test either. I don't know anything about Ned Lamont, outside of the fact that more progressive elements within the party back him, but the evaluation of a candidate has to be on the broad range of issues, and Lieberman has not proven himself to be a positive force in the Senate.

I know that Ideals tend to die easily in the political world, but when issues become secondary to party affiliation the party quickly loses its sense of self and that's been the Democrat's problem for a few elections cycles now.

Self

This is probably the driving factor in most political decisions. For an incumbent candidate, the primary instinct is always toward preserving your elected office. Doing that is much easier with the support of a national party. Part of this is laziness -- using the powers of incumbency and party backing to win re-election rather than taking stands and making your case before the voters. In a party where internal divisions are starting to emerge, where its very future is in contention, falling in line with leadership may prove to be less politically tenable and candidates with any vision will learn that it's actually to their advantage to buck leadership when its dictates go against the wishes of constituents.

Constituents

As public servants, this is where a politician's primary loyalty should be but increasingly isn't. Right now, the organizing model of the party continues to be top-down and that's a model that will likely fail, especially with leadership that has lost touch with the grassroots. The base of the Democratic Party is shifting and that makes the ground it stands on very shaky. Unless the politicians do the hard work of going out into the communities to understand what voters want and need, this rift will worsen and the future of the party will very much be up for grabs.
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