As I watched conservatives seethe Wednesday, and Chris McDaniel (so devoted to describing his martyrdom that I think he’s a day or two away from nailing himself to a cross) boil, I came to feel—to a certain point—sympathy. If the situation were reversed, I thought, and a sellout Democrat had defeated a more progressive opponent on the strength of votes from Republicans, I have to confess I wouldn’t like it a bit.
And just as I thought about that, I remembered: Wait. This happened. And it was kind of similar. But it was also quite dissimilar, in ways that are telling about how far divorced from reality these Tea Party people are.
I refer the 2006 battle between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont. Let’s recall the facts of the case.
Lieberman was the incumbent Democratic senator from Connecticut. Beloved by Democrats, mostly, in 2000 as their history-making Jewish veep candidate, Lieberman quickly slithered into swamps from which he could be neither rescued nor redeemed. He backed the Iraq War, of course. But a lot of high-level Democrats did that. Holy Joe backed it and backed it and backed it and backed it. Op-eds in The Wall Street Journal, ever more frequent appearances on Fox News—that kind of thing.
Nor was Iraq his only apostasy. Lieberman backed President George W. Bush, Gov. Jeb Bush, and congressional Republicans on the idea of keeping the feeding tube in Terry Schiavo—against her husband’s wishes. This was an issue of luminous intensity at the time, and Lieberman was the most prominent Democrat to join “Team Life” on behalf of a woman whom nearly every expert described as being in an irrecoverable vegetative state (and who did indeed die 11 days after the tube was removed for the third and final time in March 2005).
Lieberman ran for president as a Democrat in 2004. He tanked. He got more and more belligerent about the war, more and more defensive of Bush. (He went the whole magilla and spoke at the 2008 GOP convention.) Disgust at the war in places like Connecticut ran river deep and mountain high. Lieberman’s 2006 reelection campaign approached, and his pollsters and consultants told him he should file his candidacy as an independent too, just in case.
That was sound advice, because along came Ned Lamont, a wealthy man but in political terms nothing grander than a selectman in Greenwich. And in the Democratic primary that August, Lamont won. Yes, Lieberman said, he’d stay in and run as an independent, but that would make for a three-way race, and independents never win those. Hallelujah! Holy Joe was done!
But no—the Nutmeg State GOP ran a particularly feckless candidate that year, and Lieberman, if I’m recalling it accurately, got more GOP votes than the actual GOP candidate. And he beat Lamont easily, by 7 percentage points.
So far, that’s reasonably analogous to the Cochran-McDaniel situation.
But Thad Cochran is not analogous to Joe Lieberman in any way. Lieberman, as I wrote above, was more pro-war than most Republicans by 2006. For Cochran to be an ideological equivalent to Lieberman… well, imagine that Cochran had voted for the Affordable Care Act (Obama’s biggest deal, just as Iraq was Bush’s). And then imagine that Cochran had spent the next several years talking about how great the act was, going on Rachel Maddow’s show to praise it, writing pro-Obamacare opinion pieces in the hated New York Times.
Far from doing any of that, of course, Cochran voted against Obamacare and called it socialism just like the rest of them did. He may not be the Tea Partiers’ beau ideal, but the idea that he’s some kind of squish is preposterous.
So Democrats and liberals had far, far, far more to be pissed off about in Lieberman than the tea-baggers had in Cochran. Not-in-the-same-galaxy close. And yet—and mark this difference well, please—when Lieberman won, what did liberals do?
There was some rage in the liberal blogosphere, to be sure. But there was also a fair amount of criticism of the general-election campaign Lamont ran, which was not so good, in surprising contrast to his very smart primary campaign. But within a couple of days, most people accepted that Lieberman played by the rules, Republican votes count too, and they moved on. Lamont himself was gracious in concession, although still angry about the war. But even so, he didn’t get much more indignant than this: “We ignited a spark that’s going to change the direction of our country in Iraq, and change the direction of our country at home.”
Honestly. These Tea Party people are such crybabies. And for people who are so opposed to gay rights, they’re such drama queens. These very people who go around telling the rest of us that they’re the “real” Americans understand and accept nothing about America and its politics. It’s awfully hard to beat an incumbent, and if you run a Tea Party-centric race in an open primary where Democrats can vote, you need to understand that this just might happen. And you just go lick your wounds and learn, instead of preening around, emitting the rhetorical flatulence we’ve been hearing from the likes of Sarah Palin these last few days.
The anger and disappointment of Lamont backers in 2006 constituted the response of mature, decent, small-d democratic people who may have hated a result but, after the dust cleared, understood it to be legitimate. These immature and indecent and anti-democratic McDaniel people will never accept Cochran’s win as legitimate. It’s how they play the game. It’s how they’ve taken our politics hostage. But I’ve said this a hundred times. It might be helpful, now, if a few of these craven Republicans had the stones to say it.