Senator Joe Lieberman has maintained his status as the Bush administration's favorite Democrat.
Lieberman did not merely vote against the proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by next year, the Connecticut Democrat also voted against a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.
Lieberman was one of just six Democrats who backed the administration's position on both measures. The others were Minnesota's Mark Dayton, who is not seeking reelection this year, and four Democrats who represent Republican-leaning southern and western states: Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Florida's Bill Nelson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson.
Even Republican Lincoln Chafee, who faces an aggressive challenge from a conservative is his party's primary this summer, voted for the Levin-Reed proposal, which called on the president to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq and to submit a long-term exit strategy to Congress.
There was no expectation that Lieberman would back the Kerry-Feingold proposal, which drew just 13 votes -- from its sponsors and Senators Dan Araka and Dan Inouye of Hawaii. Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
But there had been speculation that Lieberman would join the vast majority of his fellow Democrats -- including Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd -- in backing the Reed-Levin amendment. During Wednesday's debate on the measures, Lieberman, long the most outspoken Democratic advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, admitted that Iraqis need to be given real responsibility for defending and governing their country.
But, when it came time to vote, the senator was not willing to break with the Bush administration. Instead, saying that he did not want to tie the president's hands, Lieberman joined most Senate Republicans in refusing to provide any check or balance on the administration's warmaking.
There is no mistaking the position that Lieberman has put himself in. Though he represents a state that voted against Bush's election in 2000 and against the president's reelection in 2004, and though Connecticut voters express higher levels of opposition to Bush and his war than voters in most other states, Lieberman has signaled that he will continue to give the administration a blank check to wage exactly the war it wants in Iraq.
Lieberman has wedged himself so firmly in the administration's corner that, during the Senate debate on whether to push for any sort of exit strategy, the Connecticut Democrat was not given floor time by the his own party's leadership. Rather, he was introduced by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, R-Va., who served as the White House's floor manager on the issue. When he spoke Wednesday, Lieberman was the first Democrat to back the president's position.
Warner heaped praise on the Connecticut Democrat, as did right-wing Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the war in the Senate.
Having Lieberman on board is important for the Bush administration and its Republican allies, who like to suggest that there is broad support for the president's failed approach to Iraq. It's no small thing, when criticizing Democrats who express sensible concerns about the war, to be able to say: "Even the man Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000 says the president is right to stay the course."
There is no question that Lieberman's stance undercuts attempts -- hapless as they may be -- by Democrats to send clear signals regarding their concerns about a war that a clear majority of Americans now describe as "a mistake."
So who were the "winners" in Thursday's votes? The Bush administration may have gotten a boost from Lieberman, but so too will Ned Lamont, the businessman who is mounting an increasingly powerful anti-war challenge to the senator in Connecticut's August 8 Democratic primary. Before the Senate votes this week, Lamont urged Lieberman to break with the administration, saying that it was time to "build a Democratic coalition to establish and stick to a plan to end the war."
"‘Stay the course' is not a strategy for any real victory, and it is time that the President and Congress recognize that fact and take the steps needed to ensure true safety and security for the region and for America," the challenger argued.
Lamont, who has begun to garner support not just from the netroots but from prominent Democrats in Connecticut -- such as former state party chair George Jepsen -- is over 40 percent in the polls and rising rapidly. And this week's pro-administration votes by Lieberman will only serve to reinforce Lamont's message that Connecticut needs a senator who "stand up for our progressive democratic values."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
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