Sen. Joe Lieberman's loss in Connecticut's Democratic primary may well lead Congress next year to order a quick, perhaps premature, US pullout from Iraq. Watch to see how this primary's snowball will roll in other races this fall. But a longer-term meaning could be extracted from this spicy vote in the Nutmeg State.
Senator Lieberman is only the fourth incumbent senator in 26 years to lose his party's nomination. He may yet win the general election running as an independent, but his primary loss was particularly spectacular because his opponent, Ned Lamont, was a political unknown only a few months ago. And in two House primaries on Tuesday, Republican and Democratic incumbents also lost. Usually these upsets suggest the national mood is rising against incumbents, as well as against Congress itself.
And well it should.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds Americans who approve of their own representative's performance is at the lowest level since 1994 – the last time control of the House switched parties. Usually, voters simply have a low opinion of Congress but then vote their senator or congressman back in. Incumbents have well rigged the electoral system to give them many advantages, from fundraising to gerrymandered districts. But now the percentage of voters disenchanted with their representatives has risen seven points, to 45 percent.
Some of that increase could be related to a rising disgust with the way the Iraq war has been handled by both Congress and the Bush administration. But it may also arise from Congress allowing its powers as the first and most representative branch of government to be eroded by a wartime presidency and by a string of Supreme Court decisions.
And voters are increasingly turned off by the extreme polarization of the win-at-any-cost politics that's developed over decades and ends up with both parties using national issues to score points rather than solve problems with a bipartisan spirit.
The image of a gridlocked, dysfunctional Congress is very clear in the way lawmakers have failed to pass reforms that would solve the crises in immigration and energy, and that would translate into reality for voters. Impasses within the marbled halls of Capitol Hill that then lead to blame games – e.g., "do-nothing Republicans" or "obstructing Democrats" – may play well to the most partisan of voters, but not to the vast moderate voters who increasingly declare themselves as independent. And let's not even dwell on recent cases of blatant graft, a rise in pork-barrel profligacy using undebated earmarks, a decreasing number of days in session, and strange timing in House roll-call votes.
Those in a supine Congress who would reform the institution itself – even if Democrats win a majority of seats in November – are still too few, but perhaps growing. The first override of a Bush veto came only last month, six years into his term. Senate oversight of Bush's wartime legal powers seems to be increasing.
Too much can easily be read into Lieberman's primary defeat. But perhaps it really is the signal of a political shift toward institutional reform that would outlast the current national debates over the Iraq war or the Bush presidency.