Following the midterm elections, prominent Republicans and conservative media figures, as well as The Washington Post, dismissed suggestions that the results represented a referendum on Iraq by noting that Connecticut voters re-elected Sen. Joe Lieberman, despite his support for the war. But these attempts to cast Lieberman's victory as a counter to claims that the outcome of the elections was a repudiation of Bush's Iraq policy overlook Lieberman's efforts in the weeks leading up to the election to portray himself as a critic of the war.
In the wake of the midterm elections, in which Democrats gained control of the House and Senate, prominent Republicans such as White House senior adviser Karl Rove and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) dismissed suggestions that the results represented a referendum on Iraq by noting that Connecticut voters re-elected Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who ran as an independent after losing the Democratic primary, despite his support for the war. Conservative media figures such as right-wing pundit Ann Coulter and Wall Street Journal OpinionJournal.com editor James Taranto soon echoed this analysis. Most recently, a November 13 Washington Post article described Lieberman's success as an "aberration" on an Election Day when "[v]oters seemed to be speaking loudly and clearly about Iraq." But these attempts to cast his victory as a counter to claims that the election was a repudiation of the Bush administration's Iraq policy overlook the fact that, in the weeks leading up to the election, Lieberman took pains to portray himself as a critic of the war.
In the years following his sponsorship of the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq, Lieberman remained "unapologetic about his defense of Bush's Iraq policy, "as Jeffrey Goldberg reported in the March 21, 2005, issue of The New Yorker. Indeed, in 2003, he supported "establish[ing] some permanent bases in Iraq" and, in late 2005, he famously rebuked Democratic critics of the war, saying, "We undermine the president's credibility at our nation's peril." In June 2006, he was one of only six Democratic senators to vote against a Democratic-sponsored amendment calling for the United States to begin redeploying troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. And he has continued to stand by his belief that "his vote to authorize the war in 2002 was correct," as an August 7, 2006, New York Times article noted.
In the August 8 Democratic primary in Connecticut, however, challenger Ned Lamont -- who campaigned on an anti-war platform -- defeated Lieberman, who immediately announced he would continue seeking re-election as an independent candidate. But in the months leading up to the general election, Lieberman distanced himself from his earlier rhetoric on Iraq, repeatedly emphasizing his intent to end the war and bring U.S. forces home:
- In his first television ad following the August primary, Lieberman stated that he was staying in the race "because I want to help end the war in Iraq."
- An October 11 press release from his campaign described the argument that Lieberman is "continuing to back President Bush's stay the course policy" in Iraq as "an out and out lie." (This despite the fact that he has repeatedly stated the need to "stay the course" in Iraq, as Media Matters for America noted.)
- In an October 16 debate, Lieberman claimed, "No one wants to end the war in Iraq more than I do."
- In a November 3 press conference, Lieberman stated, "None of us wants more war; certainly not me. ... I want to bring our troops home."
Quinnipiac University political science associate professor Scott McLean highlighted Lieberman's efforts to "downplay" the war in a November 5 Connecticut Post article:
"He has downplayed the Iraq situation and played up his experience and attacked Lamont for his lack of it. ... Independents do disagree with Joe Lieberman on the war but are not willing to bet the farm on Lamont," McLean said.
A November 3 Associated Press article by staff writer Andrew Miga similarly reported that the Lieberman campaign actively "yanked the spotlight off" the Iraq issue and even quoted Lieberman attributing his possible re-election to "a lot more reasons than Iraq":
He's bounced back with a hard-hitting campaign that has yanked the spotlight off the issue that cost him the primary -- his support for President Bush's Iraq invasion.
"I will believe that, if this works out and I win, it is because people wanted me to be their senator for a lot more reasons than Iraq," Lieberman said, noting that voters often approach him to say while they disagree with him on the war, they still support him.
But despite the shift in Lieberman's rhetoric on the war -- and the fact that exit polls in Connecticut found that 63 percent of voters support some form of withdrawal from Iraq -- prominent Republicans cast his victory as evidence that the war had not been a particularly significant factor in voters' decisions at the ballot box. For instance, during a November 8 press conference, McCain said: "If it had just been Iraq, Joe Lieberman would have never been re-elected in Connecticut, a liberal state, where he supported the president on the war." A November 12 Washington Post article quoted Rove as saying, "[I]f Iraq is the determining factor and it is a dominant opinion, then in a blue state like Connecticut you should not have 60 percent of the voters vote for one of the candidates who said, 'Stay, fight and win.' "
In her November 8 column, Coulter echoed this analysis, writing: "[A]ccording to the media, this week's election results are a mandate for pulling out of Iraq (except in Connecticut where pro-war Joe Lieberman walloped anti-war 'Ned the Red' Lamont)." She added: "[I]f the Democrats' pathetic gains in a sixth-year election are a statement about the war in Iraq, Americans must love the war!" Similarly, on the November 10 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Taranto described Lieberman as "one of the most steadfast" war supporters in either party and framed his victory as running "counter to this argument that it was all about Iraq":
TARANTO: But let me point out two facts that I -- run counter to this argument that it was all about Iraq. First of all, Joe Lieberman trounced Ned Lamont. Joe Lieberman is the most steadfast supporter of the Iraq war among the Democrats, and one of the most steadfast in either party.
In a November 8 editorial, the Chicago Tribune also ignored Lieberman's efforts to distance himself from the war and asserted that, for Republicans, the election results "are more mixed than they might appear" because of his re-election:
For President Bush, Tuesday's results are more mixed than they might appear to partisan donkeys or elephants. Granted, many Democrats won races by campaigning against him and the war in Iraq. Yet in the nation's most closely watched referendum on the war, Connecticut voters re-elected Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a war supporter running as an independent, over anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont. That's a bitter outcome for war opponents who hoped to make Lieberman pay a price for backing Bush on Iraq.
Further, in the November 13 article, Washington Post staff writer Shailagh Murray presented Lieberman's victory as contrary to the numerous Democratic critics of the war who won election elsewhere. Murray made no mention of the shift in Lieberman's rhetoric regarding Iraq:
Voters seemed to be speaking loudly and clearly about Iraq last week when they elected war critics such as Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and James Webb of Virginia to the Senate.
Yet they also gave a fourth term to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the war, and in the narrowly divided Senate that will convene in January, the veteran Connecticut Democrat is positioning himself to become a key figure in discussions about U.S. policy in Iraq.
Pro-war in an antiwar state, Lieberman is one of the few prominent war defenders to survive a tough challenge on Nov. 7, and with his victory comes a measure of validation.
Speaking in Hartford last Wednesday, Lieberman remained unwavering in his opposition to Democrats' calls for withdrawing troops from Iraq. "What we are doing now there is not working, but that doesn't mean in any sense that it is time for us to retreat," he said. "This is a test in a very difficult and dangerous hour in our history."
But his victory also was something of an aberration, and whatever the fate of Lieberman's proposed bipartisan group, which he pledges to introduce in January, his continued support of Bush's stay-the-course approach places him well outside the Democratic mainstream.