Columns » Warwick Sabin

Friends like these

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A Democratic senator in a Democratic state faces a backlash in next week’s Democratic primary over his support for President George W. Bush and his Iraq war policy.

The senator is Joe Lieberman and the state is Connecticut, but you have to wonder if U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor is watching closely as he prepares to stand for re-election in 2008.

After all, Pryor and Lieberman have a lot in common, and that includes their positions on the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

For instance, in one of the most recent Senate actions on Iraq, Pryor and Lieberman were among only six Democrats to vote against the tamer version of two Democratic-sponsored withdrawal plans. The non-binding resolution would have called for U.S. forces to begin leaving Iraq on Dec. 31, but it did not set a deadline for when all military personnel must be out of the country.

But the frustration with Lieberman among Connecticut Democrats goes beyond his stance on Iraq. He is viewed as “Bush’s favorite Democrat,” and his opponents have been following him on the campaign trail with signs and buttons highlighting what they call “the kiss” — a Godfather-style smooch that Bush laid on Lieberman after a State of the Union address. To the Democratic party faithful, that kiss encapsulates their concern that Lieberman is putting Bush’s interests ahead of their own.

In reality, however, Pryor sides with Bush more often than Lieberman. An analysis last month by VoteTracker indicated that Pryor has supported the Bush administration 73 percent of the time since the beginning of 2005. Only U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was a more consistent Democratic ally to Bush.

Of course, Pryor and Nelson have different constituencies than Lieberman. Connecticut favored John Kerry over Bush in the 2004 presidential race by a margin of 54 percent to 44 percent, while Arkansas went for Bush by an almost identical count.

Still, Arkansas is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, judging from its state legislature, congressional representation and local elected officials. And while our brand of Democratic politics is decidedly more conservative than that in the Northeastern part of the nation, that doesn’t necessarily translate to an automatic affection for Bush.

In fact, as Bush’s general popularity remains low, and as Arkansas is disproportionately affected by Bush’s policies on the economy, agriculture, and Iraq, Pryor’s close association with Bush may generate a similar degree of discontent among Democrats here as Lieberman’s did in Connecticut.

Lieberman’s defenders say he is being targeted by rabid partisans who demand absolute loyalty at the expense of civility, and certainly Pryor would make a similar argument to explain his cooperation with Bush.

“I told the people of Arkansas I would try to work with the president ... try to work with everybody to get things done for Arkansas,” Pryor told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette when asked about his voting record. “Being a Democrat is important to me, but it is not the most important thing to me.”

That makes sense, and a bipartisan approach to governing is effective and honorable. But many Democrats in Arkansas and elsewhere are justifiably concerned that what passes for bipartisanship these days is Democrats giving in and running scared. Pryor’s high-profile role as a member of the so-called “Gang of 14,” for instance, didn’t prevent or even slow down the confirmation of Bush’s most conservative judicial nominees.

That’s resignation, not compromise, and with so many critical issues at stake, Pryor and his colleagues should be thinking about how history will judge them.

“At this moment, with a Republican president intent on drastically expanding his powers with the support of the Republican House and Senate, it is critical that the minority party serve as a responsible, but vigorous, watchdog,” the New York Times wrote in its endorsement of Lieberman’s Democratic primary opponent. “That does not require shrillness or absolutism. But this is no time for a man with Mr. Lieberman’s ability to command Republicans’ attention to become their enabler, and embrace a role as the president’s defender.”

Fortunately, Pryor still has over a year to consider the lessons of Lieberman’s experience and head off a potential primary challenge. Already this year, he has made two courageous votes: one opposing the proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, and another against repealing the estate tax.

Still, Pryor announced that he will support Lieberman’s re-election even if Lieberman loses next week’s Democratic primary and runs as an independent. Only two other Democratic senators are putting their allegiance to Lieberman above their respect for the political nominating process.

And that begs the question: If Pryor is willing to stand in the minority to be unflinchingly loyal to Lieberman, why can’t Arkansas Democrats demand a similar degree of devotion?

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