Two very different propositions

Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post asks whether the Rhode Island Senate race is “Lieberman Redux.” In Rhode Island, a conservative Republican candidate, Stephen Laffey, is running against incumbent Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, and many conservative bloggers (including me) and some conservative interest groups favor Laffey, the insurgent.

Marcus finds that “the analogy [between this race and Lieberman’s] goes only so far” because in Rhode Island a victory in the primary for the Republican insurgent would likely mean the election of the Democrat in the fall. In Connecticut, by contrast, no risk existed that a Lamont victory in the primary would result in the election of a Republican.

Marcus misses the other major distinction between the two races — the fact that, whereas Lieberman almost always votes with Democrats and usually with the liberals, Chafee rarely votes with his party and almost never with the conservatives. Marcus notes that Chafee “voted against all the Bush tax cuts, the war in Iraq, the Medicare prescription drug plan and Justice Samuel Alito, and. . .favors gay marriage and abortion rights and opposes the death penalty for Osama bin Laden.” But she fails to contrast this record, which makes Chafee essentially indistinguishable from a generic Democrat, with Lieberman’s long record of voting with his party. Indeed, even Lieberman’s voting record on Iraq does not differ with that of many Democrats — it’s the sincerity of his votes that does.

As I’ve said before, there’s nothing per se inappropriate about a party dumping an incumbent in a primary for ideological reasons. But the question when this happens should always be, what does the result tell us about the party. A Chafee defeat would tell us that Rhode Island Republicans won’t tolerate a Senator who consistently votes like a Democrat. Lieberman’s defeat told us that Connecticut’s liberal Democrats wouldn’t tolerate a liberal Democrat (who was part of the party’s presidential ticket a mere six years earlier) who believes that the war in Iraq was and is worth fighting. These are two very different propositions.

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