26 April 2007

'06 Postscript: Lamont Still A Voice To Challenge Conventional Wisdom

Ned Lamont, returning to New Britain for the first time since his U.S. Senate campaign last year, addressed a packed room of students and faculty at CCSU’s Marcus White Hall on April 26th.

Invited by History and Philosophy faculty to speak on “Challenging the Conventional Wisdom”, Lamont recounted how he decided to run against incumbent Joe Lieberman after failing to persuade more seasoned politicians to take on an 18-year incumbent who had become increasingly aloof from rank and file CT Democrats. The turning point, Lamont said as he did often on the campaign trail, was Lieberman’s late 2005 admonition: “It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge he’ll be commander in chief for three more years. We undermine the president’s credibility at our own peril.” When he heard those words, Ned Lamont knew he could not abide “George Bush’s favorite Democrat” any more. Having held just a town office in Greenwich, the upstart Lamont decided he would have to give the Democratic Party the much needed debate over the U.S. course in Iraq it yearned for. As the campaign moved from winter to spring in 2006, Lamont found that Lieberman’s increasing estrangement from the people who put him in the Senate back in 1988 was real and growing.

Appearing at ease and reflective during his CCSU appearance, Lamont said his overtures about a Lieberman challenge were dismissed out of hand by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Lamont’s assertions that Lieberman was undermining other Democrats and walking lockstep with the GOP fell on deaf ears within the party hierarchy at the state and national level.

The Greenwich Democrat, who is a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government this semester with former Cong. Nancy Johnson (R-New Britain), credited the internet bloggers for fueling what became a grassroots movement that led to his improbable victory in the August 8th Democratic Primary.

Lamont’s primary win, many have since contended, gave Democrats a spine and the gumption to forcefully take on the Bush administration over Iraq. It certainly spawned an unprecedented upsurge in voter registrations in favor of the Democrats. Arguably, the Lamont general election campaign gave Joe Courtney his razor-thin win in the 2nd Congressional District and helped propel Chris Murphy’s overwhelming win in the 5th Congressional District. With Lieberman as the Democratic nominee the Democratic message and the important contrasts to be made between Democrats and Republicans would have been blurred considerably.

In the general election Lamont conceded he may have been hurt by Lieberman’s emphasis on “experience”, and the incumbent’s hammering home the message of “bringing home the bacon.” Lamont said his campaign sought to counter Lieberman with his own experiences in building a business and challenging the go-along and get-along atmosphere of Washington, which was not being particularly responsive to the state’s problems in transportation, job dislocation and health coverage.

The decisive factor in the General Election, Lamont reminded an appreciative audience at CCSU, was the failure of the Republican nominee, Alan Schlesinger, to break over single digits as a percentage of the final vote. From July onward last year the Republican Party abandoned its nominee to line up behind “George Bush’s favorite Democrat”, a development that gave Lieberman the barely 50% he needed to win another term.

Last November a New Britain Democrat commentary assessed the impact of Lamont’s candidacy immediately after the votes were counted:

“Ned Lamont lost the electoral battle last Tuesday but his upstart candidacy and winning of the Democratic nomination helped start a movement within the Democratic Party that may win the peace in Iraq sooner rather than later and helped define the 2006 election in favor of Democrats. The ouster of Donald Rumsfeld last Wednesday was a sign that policy change is coming fast. The entry of grown ups (the Baker/Hamilton Iraq study group) into the Oval office are the beginning of the end of the Cheney/Lieberman policy of neoconservatism and intransigence. In Connecticut, Lamont, calling out Lieberman on his many accommodations with the GOP Administration, has inspired thousands of people to become involved, including newcomers to the New Britain Democratic Town Committee, who will stay involved for future elections.”

Ned Lamont, speaking as if he yearned to be on the stump campaigning again, ended his 30-minute talk by challenging his mostly young audience to take on conventional wisdom themselves. He let it be known that there will be no “woulda, coulda or shoulda” for him when he looks back on 2006. By choosing to challenge an incumbent U.S. Senator who thought he could ignore his base, Lamont used his own considerable resources to lead a grassroots movement that contributed to a change of power in Congress and inspired thousands of people to become involved in the political process. And his talk at the CCSU campus showed that he's not done rocking the boat nor being a prominent voice in the Democratic Party.

22 April 2007

Murphy Reports On War Without End At First New Britain Forum

Cong. Chris Murphy (D-CT 5), just returned from a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan with a six-member Congressional Delegation (CODEL) led by Cong. Steve Lynch (D-MA 9), provided a sobering assessment of U.S.. intervention in both countries at a Slade Middle School forum on Saturday, April 21st.

Standing beside posters showing the growing costs of the war and an escalating insurgency, Murphy said the “life changing” trip reinforced his position in favor of a clear Iraq exit strategy now contained in legislation adopted by both the House and Senate.

Bush and the Congress are now at odds over the "Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health and Iraq Accountability Act" that sets a July 1 deadline for meeting benchmarks. If benchmarks are not met, redeployment of U.S. troops would begin within 180 days. Bush vows a veto over the timetable and falsely accuses Democrats of not supporting the troops.

Murphy confessed to a rookie congressman's awe about being part of the congressional fact-finding trip. But his command of the facts and analysis made for a compelling case against Bush and Cheney's intransigence.

Iraq and Afghanistan pose two very different challenges, according to Murphy. The fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan is difficult. Unlike Iraq, sectarian violence is not rampant and the country possesses a greater sense of nationalism. Murphy, however, worries that the U.S. may be "under-committed" in Afghanistan where post 9/11 efforts to thwart terrorism began.

In Iraq, Murphy and his colleagues held a meeting with General David Petraeus at which the U.S. military leader candidly told lawmakers that he could not say whether the latest “troop surge” was working or would work at all. Murphy said President Bush, who met with him and CODEL members in the Oval Office following the trip, remains “unreformed” and as obstinate as ever about his war without end.

Murphy pointedly added that those who think the U.S. can now easily extract itself from the quagmire are only fooling themselves.

There was an unspoken frustration at this first Congressional forum held by Murphy in New Britain. One woman, who jeopardized her nursing education to protest the Vietnam War, said the protests a generation ago had more of an impact than the protests of today. Others pointed to the Draft and Selective Service in the 1960s that made the war toll more of a shared sacrifice and led to a more potent anti-war effort. Cong. Murphy noted that this war involves sacrifice only among the soldiers and families who are facing multiple tours of duty. He put the number of troops who have been back more than once at 170,000. Those tours are stretching Guard forces and regular troops to the limit, but are necessary to patrol the streets of Baghdad and do for the Iraqis what they are unable to do for themselves.

Much on the minds of the New Britain audience was the neglect in the delivery of services for returning veterans. Murphy, noting the well publicized deficiencies in outpatient care at military hospitals, said that it takes a minimum of 18 months for returning soldiers to obtain veteran’s benefits and services. It shouldn't take that long, he said, pointing out that Congress' reauthorizing bill for Iraq and Afghanistan (HR 1591) includes an additional $1.5 billion for veterans.

The Bush Administration may be penny pinchers for veterans but they have been most generous to some of their friends. Among Murphy's "costs of the war" is $10 billion which is "the amount of Iraq reconstruction funds currently unaccounted for." Among the companies receiving war profits has been Dick Cheney's Halliburton. Halliburton's engineering subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, was awarded $7 billion in no-bid contracts early in the "Iraqi Freedom" campaign, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Murphy, a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, indicated that Congress is uncovering "layers of contracting upon contracting" wherein no-bid contractors are skimming funds and sub-contracting actual work for Iraq projects to others.

House-approved legislation (HR 1362)known as the "Accountability In Contracting Act" would change federal acquisition law to end these "abuse-prone" contracts that have proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is opposed by the Bush administration but has gained new momentum with the takeover of Congress by the Democrats. Ironically, the measure has now gone to the Homeland Security Committee chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut for further action in the Senate.

Having gained firsthand knowledge of the Iraqi situation, Cong Murphy goes back to Capitol Hill to press for enactment of an Iraq policy that does not depend on an unending presence of U.S. troops. It is doubtful, however, that he and Democrats in Washington can succeed in the short term so long as Bush has enough allies in the Congress to maintain a status quo that fuels the insurgency, drains our resources and makes us no safer. Murphy and the Democratic majority now need Republicans to stand up to Bush and Cheney to change direction in Iraq before the President's term ends.