A TERRORIST CONSPIRACY to blow up American airliners flying from Britain to the United States--surely the most threat ening terrorist plot since 9/11--was broken up last week. The fighting between Israel and the terrorist group Hezbollah continued to raise the possibility of a full-scale Middle East war. And in Baghdad, American and Iraqi soldiers waged a last-ditch battle to cleanse the city of insurgents and terrorists and suicide bombers.
Meanwhile, Dem ocrats ousted their leading national security hawk, Senator Joe Lieber man of Connecticut, and re placed him with a rich dilettante, Ned Lamont, who ran his campaign on the single issue of getting American troops out of Iraq.
So it comes down to this: As the world got more dangerous, the Dem o crats got more pacifist and more left-wing. At the least, they have become less committed (or not committed at all) to a strong national security policy and less eager to defend America's interests around the world or to promote democracy.
The nomination of Lamont as the Democratic Senate candidate in Connecticut brought into focus what are emerging as key Democratic positions: a deep aversion to the use of force, a naive belief in diplomacy that comes close to outright appeasement, a view that President Bush's war on terrorism is a greater threat to America than Islamic terrorism itself, and declining support for Israel.
The Democratic party's lurch to the left is accompanied by a cold partisanship. Simon Rosenberg, whose New Democrat Network was once touted as a force for moderation, said "the meaning of Lamont's win" includes--indeed requires--"a new progressive politics of confrontation, not accommodation."
In terms of ideology, Democrats have adopted a slightly varnished version of the staunch leftism associated with European parties. Those are anti-American left-wing parties, by the way. In terms of politics, Democrats have moved in a direction unlikely to succeed over time in a country with a center-right majority.
But this may make no difference in the midterm election on November 7. Democrats are not the issue this year. As things stand now, an unpopular president, a dejected Republican party, and a war in Iraq with no end in sight are the chief issues. Democrats should benefit from all of these. Only the terror issue, revived by the plot to blow up U.S. airlines, stands in the way of substantial Democratic gains in the House and Senate.
In 2008, however, Bush will step down and a new president will be elected. And the paramount issue will be national security, as it always is in presidential years. Democrats, weak on national security and growing weaker still, are bound to suffer.
The rejection of Lieberman was im portant not only because he backs the Iraq war and is a Democrat willing to deal with Bush, but also because of who he is. He is the last of a long line of pro-defense Democrats once called Cold War liberals, a line including Harry Truman, JFK, and Henry Jackson. He is one of the party's most prominent defenders of Israel. And he was picked as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000 largely because of his reputation as a hard-liner on defense. Lieberman is not just another Democrat.
His defeat may not push Demo crats further to the left, though the party's left-wing zealots are eager to. But it does reflect a trend already seen in the attitude of congressional Democrats and in policy flips by leading Democrats. Since Bush was reelected in 2004, Democrats have attacked his aggressive approach to fighting terrorism. They have balked at renewing the Patriot Act, criticized NSA eavesdropping on terrorist phone calls to and from the United States, and complained about surveillance of wire transfers of money without a court order. They insist Bush has wildly overstepped his presidential authority in combating terrorism.
Outside Washington, Al Gore and John Edwards have become harsh critics. Gore was picked as Bill Clinton's running mate in 1992 because he had been one of only 10 Senate Democrats to vote for the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein. Later, the Clinton-Gore administration called for "regime change" in Iraq. Now Gore is a passionate opponent of the war in Iraq. And Edwards has repudiated his war vote in 2002 when he was a senator. He was the first major Democrat to call Lamont last week with congratulations.
Lieberman is not the first Dem ocrat targeted by the leftist brigades in the party, led by MoveOn.org. They took on Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas because of his friendly relations with Bush. He narrowly defeated a left-wing primary foe. Then they mounted a primary challenge against Rep. Jane Harman, who supports a vigorous war on terror. She won handily, 62.5 percent to 37.5 percent. Lieberman was their first scalp.
With Lieberman now running as an "independent Democrat" against Lamont, prudent Democrats are hoping the Connecticut race gets minimal media attention. After all, whatever the outcome, a Democrat will still hold the Senate seat.
A lot, though, will depend on the type of campaign Lieberman runs. In his concession speech, he concen trated on attacking Lamont as a devotee of "the old politics of partisan polarization." That's a nice theme, but it probably won't win him a fourth Senate term. He needs to campaign on national security. If he does, there are enough independents, Republicans, and hawkish Demo crats, even in a blue state, to reelect him.
That would make the Lieberman-Lamont contest a national race guaranteed to draw intensive press coverage throughout the fall. The central issue in the campaign wouldn't be Bush and Republicans. The issue would be Democrats and whether they had bolted so far to the left that they couldn't be trusted to protect the nation.
Democrats were at this juncture once before. During the Vietnam war, the party was taken over by left-wing activists who caused the landslide loss of 1972 and left a legacy of softness on national security that plagued the party for a generation.
Democrats have convinced themselves that times are different today, different even from 2002 and 2004, when Bush and Republicans used terrorism and national security to win unexpected victories. They believe the president and his party have squandered their advantage on national security by prolonging an unpopular war in Iraq. This, they think, gives them a free pass to dump Lieberman. Democrats are betting the future of their party on the idea that history won't repeat itself. Their problem is that history, one way or another, often does.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.