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By JOHN HALL
Media General News Service
Look at the way the White House handled Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and the way Senate Democrats are treating Sen. Joseph Lieberman. You will find fresh footprints in the ancient struggle of principle vs. power.
It would have been tempting for the White House and the Republican National Committee to turn their backs on Chafee and endorse his conservative opponent in last week’s Rhode Island primary. Chafee voted against the Iraq war and has been a more outspoken opponent of Bush’s policies than many Democrats. He even refused to vote for the president’s re-election.
Yet Bush sent word he was behind Chafee as the best hope to win in the November election and preserve the Republican majority. The backing from the Senate and national leadership gave him his narrow victory over a conservative challenger.
Contrast that with Lieberman, a Democratic supporter of the Iraq war. He is running as an independent in Connecticut against anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont, who defeated him in the Democratic primary.
When Lieberman returned to Washington, most Senate Democrats treated him like a leper because he refused to withdraw.
Last week, even former President Jimmy Carter joined in the call for Lieberman to be ousted because of his stand on Iraq.
If Lieberman wins in Connecticut this fall, which now seems like a better-than-even chance, and the Senate ends up deadlocked, he could haunt the Democratic cloakroom.
Lieberman has promised to vote with his old party to organize the Senate. But if Democrats keep stiff-arming him, he could change his mind or even his party, which is setting the stage for a switch.
The smart play for Democrats would have been to let the best man win in Connecticut, and rejoice that both are Democrats. But Democrats have decided to stand on principle this year, except in Rhode Island, where it campaigns for anti-war-Republican Chafee’s defeat, even though there is no sign that an anti-war message can carry a Senate majority.
Democrats have prided themselves in modern times on being the party of the "big tent," while chiding their opponents as being closed, narrow-minded people who all think alike and perform litmus tests to exclude those with opposing views.
The party was big enough in the ’60s and ’70s to hold both George McGovern, dove of doves, and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, an anti-communist hawk and unwavering advocate of the Vietnam War.
Why isn’t the Democratic tent big enough now to hold someone like Lieberman?
Lamont, who beat Lieberman, denied that it was because of his war views. He said Lieberman was rejected because of his total record, including his energy policy. He was out of step with the liberals who dominate Democratic politics in Connecticut.
The more important difference is the personalities and the party, itself.
Scoop Jackson would never have let himself become a poodle of any president of either party during the Vietnam era _ much less be kissed by one of them, as Lieberman did.
The Democratic Party for much of the Vietnam War had a significant bloc in support of the war. Organized labor, under the AFL-CIO’s George Meany, was an outspoken voice behind continuing the Vietnam War. Important contributors, such as the aerospace industry in Jackson’s home state of Washington and their unions, were solid backers of the war. Jackson was known as "the senator from Boeing."
As for Republicans, have they gone to the big tent?
If so, the tent poles are shaking. While some Republicans this year at the national level seem willing to hold moderates inside at whatever the cost, not all of them are keen on such pragmatism.
The conservative Club for Growth, for one, worked to defeat Chafee in the primary and came within a whisker of succeeding. If Chafee loses in November, which is a distinct possibility, there will be all sorts of recriminations from the right not only against the lame-duck Bush but also the Republican National Committee.
Backing Chafee today looks like good, book-play politics. Still, it is a little jarring to hear Bush campaign for a Republican who is against his war policy in the same week that he warns that al Qaeda will follow us into our homes unless we stay the course.
(John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. E-mail jhall(at)mediageneral.com.)