To this day, Sen. Joe Lieberman still doesn't get it. The 18-year incumbent Democratic from Connecticut is in the battle for his political life in the Democratic primary. He dismisses his challenger — Ned Lamont, a Connecticut businessman whose campaign is grounded on opposition to the war in Iraq — as a single-issue candidate.
But Iraq is not a single issue; it is a central issue — both for the country and for the Democratic Party. It is a catastrophic foreign policy debacle. It grounded our policy on aggressive "pre-emptive war." It has alienated us from our allies and generated hatred among 2 billion Muslims across the world. It has weakened our military, forcing our troops into an extended occupation in the midst of a growing civil war for which they have neither appetite nor training.
It has proved a recruiting boon for al-Qaeda. It has sorely weakened our foreign policy influence, as demonstrated graphically in the current conflict in Lebanon. It has cost nearly 2,700 American lives, over 20,000 Americans wounded — and an estimated 50,000 Iraqi deaths, with the death toll now mounting to 100 a day.
At home, it has skewed our budget priorities. We've spent about $300 billion already even as we cut support at home for the still-displaced Katrina survivors, raise interest rates on student loans and cut access to preschool for poor children.
The Iraq debacle has featured the cronyism, corruption and incompetence that is characteristic of this administration. Billions have been pocketed in Iraq by companies like Halliburton, which the Pentagon charged with contracting abuse even as it renewed its no-bid contracts. The administration cooked the intelligence to get us into the war, and then launched the war with no plan for the occupation, and with inadequate forces and inadequate equipment that cost needless lives.
The war has undermined our own democracy, with a president claiming untrammeled powers to act above the law for the duration of a war on terror that he says will last for generations. And from this arrogance has come shameful abuses, from the torture in Abu Ghraib to the hidden prisons of the CIA to the locking up of people — too many of them innocent — without hearing or lawyer or charges in Guantánamo and elsewhere. America, which has championed the rule of law in the world, is now widely viewed as a rogue nation that views itself as above the law.
Through all this, Joe Lieberman has been, as the New York Times termed it, the president's "enabler." He lobbied early and hard for the pre-emptive war of choice. He echoed the lies and dismissed the folly of the president's men while questioning the patriotism of those who raised sensible questions about our course. He scorned Democrats who objected to the imperial presidency. To this day, he whitewashes what is going on in Iraq.
Iraq is not a single issue; it is a central issue. Lieberman's response has been to line up the centrist Democratic Leadership Council — basking in the embrace of Bill Clinton, whom he once called a moral disgrace. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has rushed in political pros and organizers to help "save our guy."
But across Connecticut, voters are saying "this is not our guy." They are sending a message not just to George Bush but to the Democratic Party — calling them to account. Lamont, has run a principled campaign, devoid of personal attacks or gutter politics. He simply has agued, correctly, that Lieberman has not simply been wrong on the war, but a leader of the war hawks, the president's favorite Democrat and leading defender.
Whatever happens in the primary next Tuesday, the message has already been sent. Americans don't pay much attention to politics. They are easily roused by appeals to patriotism and fear. They tend to re-elect incumbents. But periodically, democracy works. A defining issue rouses opinion, and that leads to a defining election.
In Connecticut, the Democratic primary is just that. And every member of the club better listen to what the voters are saying.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.