Cook On Concord: What happens when the center can no longer hold?

I voted for Joe Lieberman once, writing in his name in the 2004 GOP presidential primary against President Bush. He didn’t get the GOP nomination. Maybe that is his problem — not the nomination, the fact I, a moderate Republican, voted for him, and people like me like him.

The three-term Democratic senator from Connecticut came in a close second to an anti-war, further-left cable company executive, Ned Lamont, in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary by a margin of about 4 percent.

The former vice presidential candidate immediately announced that he would run in the general election in November as an independent, making him a possible front-runner against a weak GOP candidate and Lamont.

How did this happen and what does it mean about Lieberman and politics in general?

If all politics is local, there probably are a number of Connecticut reasons for the result. National observers, however, point to the fact that Lieberman has supported President Bush in the Iraq war and on other matters, and that he has reached out across the aisle to forge alliances with Republicans to get legislation passed and policy adopted.

Lieberman is active in his religion (not only during election season), pious, moral and serious. He has never been accused of being anything other than a Democrat and was supported in the primary by many prominent national Democrats, and many others who now find merit in Lamont, party being more important than principle, assumedly.

If opposition to the Iraq war were the only issue, then there are a number of Republicans and Democrats, as well as independents, who would applaud the message Lieberman’s defeat sent, since that war is of dubious international wisdom. However, if liberal Democrats resent Lieberman’s willingness to work with members of the other party and made that the reason for voting against him, that causes worry.

On the same day Lieberman came in second in his primary, Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan lost to a conservative GOP candidate. Like Lieberman, Schwarz had the reputation of being willing to compromise on policy and find common ground. Both were the victims of the “ideology police” in their respective parties, if reports can be believed, purged from their parties by those who think they know what everyone should think.

If these results have any meaning on a national scale, they portend a further polarization of politics, with voters stuck with the choices of the left wing of the Democratic Party and the right wing of the Republican Party — a bad thing.

But if Lieberman runs as an independent and is re-elected to the Senate, and then rejoins the Democrats, it may be a wake-up call to them. Here we have a religious, serious, experienced, moral and intelligent man who does not elevate political position over personal belief — what a concept! Sure, he can be wrong on individual issues, but his dedication to country and good policy is not in doubt.

Maybe his re-election would be a reminder to the parties to return to the center — maybe not, since the trends are in the opposite direction.

Recent UNH polls show Democratic Gov. John Lynch with close to an 80 percent popularity rating. Lynch has made bipartisanship a hallmark of his tenure. His opponent, Rep. Jim Coburn, is little known and not at all taken seriously by the majority of voters. While on one level this is unfortunate, on the practical level it is likely that Lynch will attract almost all voters of his party, and the polls indicate almost half of the Republicans and a vast majority of the independents.

Could this be the core of a new party? Only if there were a concerted effort to do so — or one or the other party adopted the theory as its guiding principle, thus recasting itself as a new “moderate party.”

The other unknown in Lynch’s poll numbers is the effect his presumed vote will have on other races for the Executive Council, Senate and House of Representatives. If Democrats have candidates in enough races, they probably stand a chance of picking up 30 members of the House, two to three senators, and maybe one council seat (although I cannot figure out which one it might be). What is sure is that there are going to be Democratic gains if Lynch’s support remains this strong.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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