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Rise of the Independents

Rise of the Independents

Posted: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 8:01 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON – Florida Governor Crist is to the RepublicanParty what Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is to the Democratic Party — a very powerful thorn in the side. Lieberman became an Independent after he lost the Democratic primary in 2006. Crist knew he was going to lose the GOP primary in August and became an Independent so he could stay in the game and run for the Senate in November.
In each case, jumping ship looks like rank political opportunism, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for Crist, just as it did for Lieberman. After an initial wave of commentary that he would be a man without a party, scorned by both sides, Lieberman settled into his new role. He caucuses with the Democrats, but he is unpredictable, bolting the party at key moments during the healthcare debate and keeping the leadership wondering whether they’ve got his vote on a range of issues.
The aura of independence that Lieberman has created makes his vote all the more important, and if Crist is able to win a Senate seat in Florida as an Independent, he will be one of the most courted senators on Capitol Hill. Florida abolished runoff elections in 2002, so all it will take for Crist to win in November is a plurality. He will face Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, whose hold on conservative voters drove Crist out of the GOP, and Democrat Kendrick Meek, a member of Congress and former police officer who has not run statewide and suffers from low name recognition.
There’s a scenario where any one of the three can win, but the issue at hand is not so much whether Crist can win, but what it means in America’s two-party system if another credible Independent comes to Washington. Contrary to being sidelined, Lieberman has turned out to be an influential voice on a number of issues.
He helped torpedo the public option during the healthcare reform debate, threatening to join the Republican filibuster if it were part of the bill. Some Democrats wanted to punish Lieberman by stripping him of his committee chairmanship, but he emerged unscathed, and now he’s being hailed for his leadership in ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and crafting a bipartisan energy bill.
Lieberman’s success as an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats must make Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter wish he had simply adopted the Independent label, caucusing with the Democrats, instead of switching parties. Specter wanted to avoid a Republican primary he couldn’t win, just like Crist, but now he’s facing a Democratic primary, and November is shaping up to be problematical for Specter as a newly-minted Democrat. He almost surely would have had an easier ride as an Independent, and would have had more power as a swing vote.
There are currently two Independents in the Senate, with Vermont’s Bernie Sanders a self-identified socialist joining Lieberman in caucusing with the Democrats. Crist is a moderate establishment Republican, and if he comes to Washington as an Independent, he could herald a new day in Washington politics. Given the backlash against government and politics as usual, the Independent label is attractive to voters, and if Crist can win, he will serve as a model for future Independent candidates
If there were five or six powerful Independents, they would do for Congress what Sandra Day O’Connor did for the Supreme Court. By serving as a fair-minded, independent voice who was not captive to the ideology of her party, she became the most sought after vote, the person who could move the Court to the majority. She was not the Chief Justice, but her vote made it the O’Connor Court, an enviable balance of power that could well be emulated on Capitol Hill.
Published in The Messenger 5.10.10

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