A Problem of Perception
Call us Neo-liberals, New Democrats, Clinton Democrats. Call us Peter Beinart Democrats. We’re in a battle for the soul of our party, with what might be called the “Michael Moore Democrats” or the “Chris Owens Democrats”, and the perception is that we’re losing.
To cop from the dust jacket of Beinart’s recently published “The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again”, we believe the that “America must lead the world by persuasion, not command”, George Bush believes the opposite, and American and the world are suffering as a result. By contrast, Michael Moore Democrats believe we should not lead, and when we do, we are invariably a force of evil. Moore not only believed this in Iraq; he believed this in Bosnia and Kosovo as well (apparently, stopping genocide is morally heinous). In contrast, Clinton Democrats, exemplified by Beinart, believe “that liberalism cannot merely define itself against the right, but must fervently oppose the totalitarianism that blighted Europe a half century ago, and which stalks the Islamic world today” and “an unyielding hostility to totalitarianism – and a recognition that defeating it requires bringing hope to the bleakest corners of the globe. And it means understanding that democracy begins at home, in a nation that does more than merely preach about justice, but become more just itself.” To Moore Democrats, the one word definition for a Clinton Democrat is: “Republican”.
But, Beinart’s dust jacket also argues that “American greatness cannot simply be asserted; it must be proved….That American leadership is not American Empire.” As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. says in praise of Beinart, “The replacement of containment by the Bush Doctrine of preventive war...has screwed everything up with illegitimacy, tactical blunders, and utopian fantasy.”
As so defined, Joe Lieberman is not a Clinton Democrat; Joe Lieberman is a Bush Democrat. Lieberman, in large part, brought his defeat upon himself; principled disagreement is one thing, but Lieberman often bent over backwards to give aid and comfort to W. It's hard to countenance his pro-war position; most Dems who did not oppose the war at the beginning (Beinart included) have since re-stated their position to account for new information (in fact, Beinart admits he was wrong even based upon the old information), but Joe is still looking for the WMD we couldn't find during Saddam's cavity search. It's one thing to say that bad idea or not, one can't just leave now; it's another thing to still believe in the glorious adventure for its own sake.
In actuality, it may well be possible that Ned Lamont, who refused to endorse immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and refused to toe the “Michael Moore/Chris Owens Democrat” line on Israel, may be a Clinton Democrat himself. Unfortunately, this may be one of the cases where the perception may overwhelm the reality. The perception of the Lamont victory is that the Democratic Party, while not embracing “Islamo-fascism” (the agenda of which, after all, is closer on social issues to that of the Republicans), have become the party of the anti-anti-Islamo-fascists, and that all deviations from the loony left catechism are to be punished by political oblivion. Not a good message if one wants to win back the Congress and the White House. Which, essentially, is why Clinton Democrats like myself, Beinart and Clinton supported Lieberman, warts and all.
I'm also of the belief that the Lamont/Lieberman fight was and is a waste of blood and treasure, as the results won’t change by one iota the number of Democrats in the US Senate. I now call upon everyone outside of the State of Connecticut to butt out and leave this to the locals. Volunteer time, and donor money, can best be expended elsewhere. Even those who really care should understand that Lamont has more than enough money to fight this battle without your help; go send a check to Sherrod Brown! And frankly, the sort of right-Jewish money Lieberman will now be raising is better spent here than landing in the pockets of Rick Santorum.
But, I digress from the issue of perception. Clearly the perception is out of line with reality in the same week that an extremely liberal district in Georgia ousted Christine McKinney, one of the prime exemplars of the “Michael Moore Democrats”, from her seat in Congress. But, as they say in the old west, when the legend become the truth, you print the legend, which brings us to the second most ridiculous primary being fought in America: the race for the Democratic nomination for United States Senator in the State of New York (the most ridiculous race in America is that for the Republican nomination for United States Senator from the State of New York).
It’s hard to dispute that the incumbent, Hillary Clinton, qualifies as a brand name Clinton Democrat. The Moore wing of the party correctly perceives this, and is running a left/activist named Jonathan Tasini against her. Tasini’s candidacy may be stupid, but he is not. He just has no sense. Tasini is sophisticated enough to understand that Lamont is not really a “Michael Moore Democrat”. But he’s senseless enough to actually say this out loud, thereby negating the rare opportunity he had to enjoy a good day by basking in the luminous light of Lamont’s reflected glow. This takes a rare sort of principled lack of self interest, similarly displayed when Tasini, a proud Jew of Israeli origin, sincerely spoke about the death of his uncle at the hands of Arab terrorists, while condemning Israel’s efforts to prevent the death of others by similar means. Tasini’s attracted the support of some of the City’s more left-liberal political clubs, and polls in the low 20s, somewhat better than my gubernatorial regret, Tom Suozzi. However, most of Tasini’s votes will probably come from the same right-wing members of the Anyone-But-Hill society who voted for the boob from the McManus club in Hillary’s 2000 primary, and those same votes will probably go to the Republican in the fall.
I think the motivation of the left here may be the fear that Hillary will become our nominee for President, thereby stopping a more liberal candidate from doing so. They see her as the candidate of triangulation and compromise, standing in the way of a true believer’s victory. The usual left catechism is that “if you run a Republican against a Republican a Republican will always win.” (Harry Truman is OK to quote on the left as long as you aren’t talking about stopping totalitarianism). They believe that the Democrats keep losing national elections because we run half-baked Republicans, and they believe that Hillary qualifies as such. They usually cite polls showing Hillary being beaten by John McCain to prove their point. Do they think this is because of McCain’s opposition to the war?
Of course, the real problem with Hillary’s presidential candidacy is that, in the heartland, she’s perceived (unfairly) as TOO FAR LEFT. The left’s proposed cure for this problem is for her to move further left; which, actually, makes almost as much sense as her proposed cure of moving to the right, since the country's image of her is so set into stone that she could personally drop the bomb on North Korea and still not alter it.
Hillary’s attempts to triangulate her problem are sometimes thoughtful; she is an exemplar of making abortion “Safe Legal & Rare (see my essay http://www.r8ny.com/blog/gatemouth/safe_legal_and_rare.html); others like her proposed federal law on flag burning, are idiotic pandering. My personal position is that any country that allows some jerk to burn its flag has a flag worth saluting. But, the Clinton bill is such a joke it would barely threaten anyone's rights. In it's effort to be constitutional, it outlaws such activities as stealing a flag with the intent to burn it (seems reasonable; if one is going to burn something, it probably shouldn't be something belonging to someone else). Therefore, while the bill is displeasing (as much for being a scam as for any other reason) I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.
Because I care about this country and want the Republicans out of office, I have to regard those who would push the Democratic Party further left (as well as their Naderite friends) as George W's "useful idiots". Their intentions may be pure, but they are our party's equivalent of suicide bombers, except they let the bomb go off in our own tent. And if you really want to know why I am so angry, just watch the US Supreme Court in action sometime. And, one more term of a Republican administration and we’ll be nostalgic for the Court’s present status quo.
The left’s list of the half-baked Republican who’ve lost us the Presidency are apparently Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. But, as I recall, the only times we've won the Presidency in my lifetime have been with moderate southerners. And, even then, it's been four wins and two losses (or more accurately five wins and one loss; we won 2000). With folks to the left of that it's been a total blowout. But the left would avoid the travails of half-baked Republican Hillary by backing who? Russ Feingold? That's the prescription for victory in 08; George McGovern minus the foreskin! “Feingold; when losing 49 states just isn’t enough”. Or was McGovern a Republican sellout too? Maybe our mistake was not running Dr. Spock.
The parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are interesting. McGovern did not lose because he opposed the war; McGovern lost largely because he was perceived to oppose national defense, a problem Democrats share today. And, let's not forget cultural issues (in 72 it was Amnesty, Abortion and Acid) and the infamous $1000 a year to every man, woman and child. Republicans were able to portray McGovern as out of sync with middle-American values, mostly on fuel supplied by McGovern and his supporters. In one form or another, this problem plagues our party to this day, but not merely because of Karl Rove; we aid it and abet it ourselves. If you don't believe me, try suggesting that embracing our national symbols as part of showing shared values would be a good idea, say, by saluting the flag, and see what kind of response you get. There was a time when even the Communist Party understood this. Now, it seems, that few Democrats outside Bill Clinton understand; Hillary is one of them. Unfortunately, they have the right message, but the wrong messenger.
Whatever the reality of Clinton’s politics, the perception on the national stage is quite different. Earlier this year, the Democratic candidate for US Senate in Missouri made quite clear she did not want Hillary to come in and campaign for her. Missouri is a purple state, and it is hard to draw a scenario for a national Democratic victory where Missouri is not considered in play, so this speaks volumes. In New York, some left-liberals think Hillary is George W. Bush and support Tasini. But, in the heartland, people think Hillary is Tasini.
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