Monday, July 31, 2006

Lieberman Through the Looking Glass

Over at MyDD, Matt Stoller poses one of the first interesting questions I've read in weeks amidst the hourly torrent of abuse towards Joe Lieberman. Prompted by a Josh Marshall post depicting Lieberman's current political travails as "tragic," Matt wants to know, basically, why anybody out there ever thought highly of Lieberman:

To me, Lieberman's vicious and reactionary nature seems quite clear and consistent. Everything from his right-wing culture warring against Hollywood to his sandbagging of Clinton's health care initiative in 1994 to his fights with Arthur Levitt at the SEC to ensure that accounting loopholes could remain to his preening about Lewinsky to his undermining of Gore in 2000 indicate that he was never the stalwart and principled man his supporters imagine. I hated each of these events separately, though I never put them together until 2001, when I really started paying attention to politics. I just sort of thought, even as a kid, who are those putzes on TV grilling carnival freak Dee Snyder? I hated the culture war nonsense, I always thought it was fake pandering.

The thing is, there are too many folks I respect who say he was once a great and likeable man to just discount these opinions. What's going on here? I'm honestly curious. Why was Lieberman ever considered a good man? Was it just that our moral universe is totally different now because of Bush's extremism? If you have insight on this, please let me know.

Now I have no particular reason to believe Matt Stoller respects me, so maybe I'm responding to a question posed to others. But the question itself reflects a whole lot of the dialogue of the deaf--not just about Lieberman, but about his record, the nature of progressivism, and the political history of the Democratic Party in the 1990s--surrounding this primary.

I will take seriously the claim, reflected in Matt's post, that hostility to Lieberman is not just about his position on Iraq--which I strongly disagree with myself. So let's take a look at the broader indictment of Lieberman as a politician who has always embodied the qualities so hated by the netroots.

To take the easy stuff first, the caricature of Joe Lieberman as a typical, egomaniacal Washington blowhard is really hard to accept if you've ever spent any time around the man. He is routinely self-deprecating in a city, and an institution (the U.S. Senate) where this quality is seen as a sign of weakness. He is notorious within the Senate itself primarily for his civility to colleagues, and his entirely atypical decent treatment of his own staff (he stands at one end of the spectrum that ranges across stern indifference and routine abuse to the ultimate Washington Boss from Hell, Arlen Specter). And while I don't have any real knowledge about the quality of Lieberman's constituent services operation, I do know that during the five-plus years he was DLC chairman, he and his staff were vigilant about any DLC pronouncement that compromised Connecticut interests.

No, I'm not saying any of this is an important reason for supporting Joe Lieberman in the August 8 primary; but it is germane to Matt's question about why anyone should like the guy at all, and to the general netroots take on Joe as some sort of avatar of the Washington Establishment.

Matt's recitation of Lieberman's ancient sins against progressive orthodoxy is almost as easy to swat down. This is the first time I've read anywhere that Lieberman was a serious obstacle to the Clinton Health Plan in 1994. Lord a'mighty, much of the Senate Democratic Caucus, most notably the chairman of the committee of jurisdiction, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, presented a far bigger obstacle. And the Plan itself, and particularly its marketing, were bigger problems than anything any Democratic senator said or did.

The slam about Lieberman's "preening about Lewinsky" reflects another odd anti-Lieberman talking point: the idea that Joe Lieberman stabbed Bill Clinton in the back by making a speech suggesting that the Big He had done something blameworthy. At the time, Joe's "Lewinsky speech," while hardly pleasant to the White House, was considered an effort to pave the way to a censure resolution in place of impeachment. And that's of course what happened. Clinton's own endorsement of, and campaign appearance with, Lieberman should lay this slur to rest.

And the stuff about Lieberman "undermining Gore" is really bizarre. I will never forget watching the Lieberman-Cheney debate, and literally scratching the TV screen in frustration that Joe wasn't hammering Cheney on this or that point. But I also knew that this approach was totally scripted by the Gore high command, which erroneously expected Cheney to do his Darth Vadar routine instead of playing the avuncular grandfather. Point B in the "Joe undermines Al" case generally revolves around the small incident during the Florida recount saga when Lieberman disclaimed any intention of challenging overseas military ballots. Again, Joe was totally doing what the Gore campaign told him to do; some of Gore's lawyers dissented from the decision, and later said so, but it wasn't Lieberman's fault. And more importantly, Gore clearly would not have been in the position to lose the election in overtime had Lieberman not been on the ballot; Joe's incredible popularity in South Florida gave the ticket its surprising strength in that state in the first place. Gore's inability to carry his own home state was a much bigger problem than anything Joe Lieberman did or did not do.

The larger point raised by Matt's post is perhaps the biggest disconnect between Lieberman's supporters and detractors:

Josh isn't the only one talking as if Lieberman were once Ghandi; it's a trend among men I know that are in their thirties or above, and had a strong connection to the political establishment prior to 2001.

The suggestion here is that anyone defending Lieberman's past, as well as his present, record, is blinded by "a strong connection to the political establishment." And the planted axiom is that Lieberman has always been the embodiment of "the political establishment."

I don't know if Matt Stoller can understand or accept this, but Joe's popularity among Clintonites in the 1990s was precisely a function of the belief that he did not represent "the political establishment." While he had a strong progressive record dating back decades, he was not a slave to party discipline. He was willing to innovate left and right on policy issues, just like Bill Clinton. He was willing to engage in what Matt calls "culture warring on Hollywood" because he wasn't willing to give the avaricious multinational corporations of the entertainment industry a pass on accountability for their products, any more than oil companies or HMOs. Joe Lieberman, like Bobby Kennedy, was not afraid to defy the elites in his own party in the pursuit of a broader progressive vision. And putting aside the Lewinsky Speech, Lieberman was without question the most resolute and consistent supporter of Bill Clinton's vision and agenda in the national party, at a time when "the political establishment" still viewed Clinton as a triangulating heretic.

Maybe he was right, and maybe he was wrong, but the idea that Joe Lieberman has always been some sort of lifelong quasi-Republican just isn't factual. And the contradictory idea that Lieberman is the American Beauty Rose of the DC Democratic Establishment is equally off-target.

The moment in the current campaign that most raised this particular issue was the sudden appearance of California Rep. Maxine Waters in Connecticut to stump for Lamont. For anyone with a political memory, this was striking: when Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his running-mate, the main trap that had to be run was Maxine Water's objection to Joe's mildly expressed view that maybe class-based affirmative action should ultimately replace race-based affirmative action. Lieberman was forced to kowtow to Waters personally and publicly, and the ultimate sign that Joe was acceptable to the entire party was his widely circulated photo kissing Maxine just before the Convention.

That "kiss" has been forgotten in all the furor over Lieberman's "kiss" from Bush.

So who represented the "party establishment" in 2000 and who represents it now? Joe Lieberman or Maxine Waters?

I pose this as a real question, not as a rhetorical question. From one point of view, Lieberman represents a DC Democratic establishment that is addicted to bipartisanship, obsessed with power in Washington, and disinterested in progressive policymaking. From another point of view, Lieberman represents a progressive tradition that needs to be modernized, not abandoned--against the perpetual opposition of entrenched Democratic incumbents in Washington like Maxine Waters, who never face electoral opposition and set themselves up as guardians of this program or that. This disconnect represents a broader disagreement between those who think of the Gore and Kerry campaigns as the disastrous denouement of Clintonism, and those who think these campaigns were crippled by the older Democratic orthodoxy of interest-group liberalism.

I frankly do not agree with either side of the Lieberman-Lamont fight in their contention that this is some sort of Democratic Gotterdammarung that will perpetually resolve every intraparty dispute. Much as I stubbornly admire Joe Lieberman, it's clear he is a clumsy politician who lives in the pre-Karl-Rove atmosphere that permitted genuine bipartisanship. The Clinton New Democrat tradition in the party would survive his defeat.

But I also think the savaging of Lieberman as "vicious and reactionary" is a terrible sign of the defection of many progressives from reality-based politics. And to respond specifically to Matt Stoller's questions, the idea that Joe is the epitome of the "Democratic establishment" is a krazy-kat reflection of the false belief that Clintonism completely conquered Washington, and is the source of every D.C. establishment vice. If you took a straw poll of the consultants, the DNC types, and safe-seat House Members who surely represent an important part of the D.C. Democratic Establishment, I doubt you'd find anything like majority support for Joe Lieberman. He's only the embodiment of the Establishment when viewed through the looking glass of those who view all their friends as brave insurgents, and all their enemies as The Man.

UPDATE: Due to a software glitch, this post went up on Tuesday, not Monday as indicated.
-- Posted at 4:13 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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