Wealthy Frenchman

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What Are the Lieberman Foes For?


A few days before Joe Lieberman, who was very nearly vice president of the United States, was effectively vanquished from his party by Ned Lamont, an affable cable executive who once played a minor role in governing the town of Greenwich, Conn., I happened to talk with Jeffrey Bell. A political consultant who is as cordial a man as you will find in Washington, Bell isn't as famous as some of his fellow Republicans, but he owns a storied place in the history of the conservative movement. A young aide to Ronald Reagan during his 1976 insurgency, Bell went on to challenge a sitting Republican senator, Clifford Case of New Jersey, in 1978. He stunned the political world by winning that race. And though he lost handily to the basketball legend Bill Bradley in the general election, just two years later Reagan ascended to the White House. If anyone was in a position, then, to assess the significance of the Connecticut rebellion, it was Bell, whose small but noteworthy victory over his party's confused establishment presaged a historic political realignment. ''It's tempting for us to underrate Dailykos and Moveon.org,'' Bell told me, referring to the Web pioneers who launched Lamont's improbable campaign. ''It's easy for us to say these guys are nuts. But the truth is, they're on the rise, and I think they're very impressive.''

There are, in fact, some compelling parallels between this moment in Democratic politics and the one that saw the ideological cleansing of the Republican ranks three decades ago. In ''Reagan's Revolution,'' an inside account of Reagan's failed 1976 campaign, Craig Shirley notes that aides to President Gerald Ford warned that they were ''in real danger of being outorganized by a small number of highly motivated right-wing nuts.'' Those so-called nuts, meanwhile, waged war on the then widely held belief that ''if they were to succeed, Republicans had to be 'pragmatic,' they had to 'broaden the base' and they had to 'compromise.' Otherwise, they would always be in the minority.'' The very same things might be written now, substituting the words ''left'' and ''Democratic'' for ''right'' and ''Republican.'' And like those bygone Republican leaders, establishment Democrats exhibit a surprisingly shallow understanding of the uprising that now threatens to engulf them.

In the aftermath of the primary, Democrats settled on the idea that Lieberman fell because of his support for the Iraq war. This was technically true, in the same way that a 95-year-old man might technically be said to die from pneumonia; there were, to say the least, underlying causes. The war was a galvanizing issue, but Lieberman's loss was just the first major victory for a larger grass-roots movement. While that movement is identified with young, online activists, it is populated largely by exasperated and ideologically disappointed baby boomers. These are the liberals who quietly seethed as Bill Clinton worked with Republicans to reform welfare and pass free-trade agreements. After the ''stolen'' election of 2000 and the subsequent loss of House and Senate seats in 2004, these Democrats felt duped. If triangulation wasn't a winning strategy, they asked, why were they ever asked to tolerate it in the first place? The Web gave them a place to share their frustrations, and Howard Dean gave them an icon.

Iraq has energized these older lapsed liberals; for a generation that got into politics marching against Vietnam, an antiwar movement is comfortable space. But it was the yearning for a more confrontational brand of opposition on all fronts, for something resembling the black-and-white moral choices of the 1960's, that more broadly animated Lamont's insurgency. Connecticut's primary showdown (which now appears to be headed for a sequel in November) marked an emphatic repudiation not just of the war but also of Clinton's ''third way'' governing philosophy - a philosophy not unlike the Republican ethos of ''compromise'' and ''pragmatism'' that so infuriated Reagan conservatives.

If history were to repeat itself, this outpouring of new liberal passion would portend trouble for the party's establishment candidates in 2008 (especially one possible candidate whose last name happens to be Clinton). But there is at least one crucial difference between insurgents of the 1970's and today. When Bell ran for the Senate in 1978, he was so obsessed with his plan to slash taxes that he went to the extraordinary length of bringing in Arthur Laffer, the renowned conservative economist, to draw his famous Laffer Curve at a news conference in Trenton. By contrast, Lamont's signature proposal as a primary candidate - and the only one anyone cared to hear, really - seemed to be the hard-to-dispute notion that he is not, in fact, Joe Lieberman. He offered platitudes about universal health care and good jobs and about bringing the troops home but nothing that might define him as anything other than what he is: an acceptable alternative.

Leaders of the Netroots, as the Internet activists have been named, will tell you that big ideas are way overrated in American politics - that you first have to master the business of getting elected before you can worry about how to govern. (Most powerful Democrats in Washington now believe this too.) But even with legions of outraged conservatives at his back, Reagan would not have taken over his party in 1980 - let alone the White House - had he not articulated an affirmative and bold argument against his party's status quo, vowing to devolve the federal government and roll back d├ętente with the Soviets. Passion and fury started the revolution, but it took a leader with larger vision to finish the job.


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