Back on May 18th when I posted The YouTube Senator, Ned Lamont was a little-known political novice challenging one of the grand old lions of the Democratic Party, an ungainly outlier tilting at windmills. He wasn't particularly Internet-savvy, didn't have a knock-out speaking style, and came across as a decent man but a hopeless case. A self-made businessman who also came from a prominent Greenwich family, Lamont was to my eyes the picture of moderation; were he not opposing a wildly off-course administration, and the Democratic Senator who gave it cover, his views could easily pass for those of a old Wall Street Republican.
A few steak dinners from now, a couple of Meet the Press's, and some tough hearings in January and Joe Lieberman will be safely back inside the ruling Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. That's fine. But he should never forget that it was Ned Lamont - the challenger he churlishly demonized - who pushed a lazy, safe, back-bencher, ossified party leadership to take on George Bush and Karl Rove and George Allen and Donald Rumsfeld. It was Ned Lamont who made the Democrats make this election about the failed war in Iraq, and thereby opened the door to a wider discussion that brought Congress back.
And it was the netroots, so easily dismissed by the committees and their oak-paneled rooms in the District, so falsely mocked by intellectual lightweights like David Brooks, who made Ned Lamont possible. Ned Lamont and a couple of outsiders named Jim Webb and Jon Tester, the two Senators-elect who were entirely embraced by bloggers on the left even while they were ignored and under-funded by consultants in the center.
There's a myth out there a-growin' that this historic election of 2006 pushed the Democratic Party "back to the center," that the big winners were Democratic "conservatives," that Americans will only elect right-leaning candidates. It's all as false as the south in George Allen's twang, as empty as the pages in David Brooks' reporters notebooks. Further, it tosses the economic underpinnings of the switch-over, particularly in the House races, where the big wave predictions came horribly true for the GOP. Reagan Democrats and their children are starting to peel away, move back to the party of their grandparents, finding the promises have all been broken.
Truth is, this is not the end of the Revolution of 1994. It's the end of the Revolution of 1980, a permanent splintering of the ties between the religious right and their strange, icky social issues and classic top-down conservative economics. Entirely lost in that divorce are the Republican libertarians, who people like Dick Cheney despise with the very fiber of his power politics being.
The war opened the door; the netroots took their wired crowbar to it and shocked the establishment with Ned Lamont. And then an argument on economics stepped through. Chervokas hits the numbers:
The simple fact is that despite GDP growth, the Bush recovery has done nothing for working and middle class Americans. In the final days of the campaign Republicans hit the hustings chanting "good economy" and "tax cuts." But the message fell on deaf ears among the electorate. Statistics show that real median household income declined in recent years while the real income of the richest 1 percent of Americans--the connected GOP insiders who benefited disproportionately from income and capital gains tax cuts as well as changes in bankruptcy and occupational safety regulations-- rose 12.5 percent.
In the rust and farm belts these are not just statistics, they are something families feel and live with everyday. Exit polls show that 54% of Midwestern House voters see the economy as bad. Seventy-three percent said that their family situation was the same or worse than before (with 31% saying worse!). And 43% of Midwestern House voters think that their children's generation will be worse off. That last stat, more than any other, provides a number to quantify the increased sense among the middle and working classes that the American dream is slipping out of their reach as wages stagnate, debts soar, savings decline, pensions are eliminated and health care costs rise.
What these voters expect from Democrats that they've elected in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri are economic policies that help them. John Yarmuth, for example, won in KY3 proclaiming that "we have a moral obligation as a nation to insure that every citizen has access to quality, affordable health care," and advocating expanding Medicare to cover every American.
And yet the chatterers so intent on creating a center in their own warped right-wing image constantly look to the past. It was no accident that John Kerry's 11th hour faux pax aroused them. Here was the dissipated, un-American left of their geeky adolescence, when they didn't tune in, drop out and meet girls at the demonstrations.
The personal grudge distorts their vision, so the "loss of the angry left" is set on Vietnam War footing, an us-versus-them formula that falls horribly short of describing what is happening in modern America, a simplistic jotting that ignores the swelling of economic anger in this country.
In truth, it short-changes the Lamont supporters - who were leaders, heralds, shock troops in an ultimately successful war against the forces of evil. They were the real loyalists, and those who continue to bullhorn the "return to the center" have missed it in guarding against their own intellectual dishonesty. Says Jim Sleeper at TMPCafe:
Gazing intently instead into the rear-view mirrors of their historical imaginations, Brooks et al saw nothing in Lamont's insurgency but Vietnam-era or Sunni lunacy. That helped them not to notice that they’ve bloodied themselves up to their elbows in a lunacy of their own, a web of assumptions, rationalizations, lies, and alarums that’s unraveling like their commentary. That's why Brooks -- who urged us last spring to give up “parlor purity” and meet “savagery with savagery” in Iraq, where insurgents “create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent” -- could see nothing in Lamont’s insurgency but nihilists who “tell themselves their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious, too.”
But who set up this hall of mirrors in the first place? Who, trapped in their own illogic and then their belated discovery that the world is a place too hard for Wilsonian idealism, wound up in the arms of a Senator who’d gone hook, line, and sinker with the Bush National Security Strategy? It's time these scribblers stopped peddling the line that Lamont was the candidate of Moore, Al Sharpton, and Moveon.org. That’s not who he is or ever was, and it’s not what 40 percent of Connecticut voters endorsed.
Lamont won't be putting his hand on the Bible in the well of the Senate in January, but his true cousins Webb and Tester and McCaskill will. Presiding will be the election's biggest loser: Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has lost the support of a President who is crawling back to Jim Baker and his father's realpolitik advisors to salvage his last two years, if not his legacy.
Some would mock Ned Lamont, the YouTube Senator who came up short.
I wouldn't. I'd pin a medal on his Greenwich country club chest.
UPDATE II: Jonathan Alter calls it as the end of the conservative revolution that began with Goldwater's defeat, reached its heights with Reagan, and was splintered by Bush and Rove. Brilliant stuff this:
Pat Buchanan and I rarely agree, but he rightly points out that the election marked the exhaustion of the movement that Barry Goldwater launched with his 1964 campaign. The intellectual vitality and coherence that once characterized modern conservatism have been shattered. Karl Rove is still arguing that the hot issues of this election—Iraq, corruption, sexual hypocrisy—are only "transitory." He's ignoring deep fissures in his party. Neocons have been discredited and theocons dispirited. Libertarians feel betrayed by big spenders, incompetent interventionists and moralizing busybodies. In the Schiavo case, in which 70 percent of voters thought Washington should have butted out, Republicans drove a wedge through their own ranks. Same with immigration, which pits the free-trade business wing against nativist Lou Dobbsians. Most important, the stitching that was meant to hold the GOP's big tent together contained none of the hope and optimism essential to success in American politics. Fear failed.