October 22, 2003


Day of the Spoiler: Inside Joe Lieberman's Kamikaze Campaign (Rick Perlstein, October 22 - 28, 2003, Village Voice)

The year was 1987, an October much like this one, with a crowded Democratic field usefully united on many, if not most, issues, but for a single irritant: Al Gore, who, determined to distinguish himself from the field by a supposedly sage and mature moderate conservatism, stepped up to the microphone at the National Press Club and read his fellow Democratic candidates clear out of the United States of America. "The politics of retreat, complacency, and doubt may appeal to others," he said, "but it will not do for me or for my country." He had already bragged in a Des Moines debate about his support for the Reagan administration's position on the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, even on chemical weapons, accusing his opponents of being "against every weapons system that is suggested"; at the next forum, he lectured his fellows on the imperative of invading Grenada and supporting the Contras. For that, some Democratic insiders were whispering, was just what it would take to be electable.

And even though the message hardly took with voters--party conservatives had scheduled a cluster of Southern primaries early in 1988 specifically to favor a candidate like Gore, but the dead-fish Tennesseean still got skunked on "Super Tuesday" by the most liberal candidate, Jesse Jackson--Gore stuck around just long enough to run a vicious campaign in the late-inning New York primary, in which he grilled front-runner Michael Dukakis for his apparent support of "weekend passes for convicted criminals."

In Washington, opposition researchers for the Republican front-runner, George Herbert Walker Bush, were taking notes.

"I thought to myself, 'This is incredible,' " Bush staffer Jim Pinkerton recalled of Gore's tarring the Massachusetts prisoner furlough program as if it were the idea of Michael Dukakis, when in actuality the program had been initiated by the Republican governor who preceded him. "It totally fell into our lap." Dukakis emerged from the convention that nominated him with a 17-point lead. Then Gore's million-dollar lines, so self-consciously crafted to make himself "electable," began finding their way into George H.W. Bush's mouth. Bush was able to successfully paint Dukakis as a dangerous radical. Al Gore had provided the palette--his smears having had nearly a year to sink into the American psyche.

Think about that next time you're watching one of the Democratic debates and hear Joe Lieberman say, as he did at one, that if Vermont's former governor won the presidential election, "the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression." Or say, as Lieberman did at his own National Press Club policy address this year, that his opponents disastrously "prefer the old, big-government solutions to our problems," even though "with record deficits, a stalled economy, and Social Security in danger, we can't afford that."

For partisans of the Democratic Leadership Council, the rigidly anti-liberal pressure group that Al Gore helped found and that his vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, chaired from 1995 to 2001, the moral of this little parable of 1988 is apparent: The Democratic Party should have saved itself the heartache and nominated Gore in the first place, just as it should nominate Lieberman now. But that won't solve the problem, either. The myth that tacking right makes a Democrat inherently more successful in a general election is, put simply, built on a foundation of quicksand. [...]

Joseph Lieberman adds nothing to the Democrats' chances in 2004. He does, however, take things away. In fighting to the finish and losing the nomination, he will have irreparably weakened the winner. If he wins it, he will suck out something precious: the active enthusiasm of the unwealthy that is a center-left party's only natural advantage against a party of money, the Republicans.

It doesn't seem likely that Mr. Perlstein will find much to like in Zell Miller's new book, A National Party No More, which argues quite forcefully that the Party needs to tack Right or keep losing. But it does seem a tough fact to get around that the last four Democrats to get more votes than their Republican opponents in a presidential race were all Southern white men--LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore--and two of them--Carter and Clinton--ran well to the Right of the national party.

That's not to say Joe Lieberman is doing himself or the Democrats any good by running--we've been noting for some time that he doesn't seem serious about his own campaign, considering it more a vanity thing, to get to be the Jewish guy who ran for the presidency. (Mr. Perlstein in very amusing fashion makes it clear that there is hardly any Lieberman campaign at ground level.) But the idea that no one on the Right (or pretending to be on the Right) should run in Democratic primaries because they end up doing the GOP's spadework seems kind of dangerous for a party that's already becoming nothing more than a coalition of special interest groups with a shrinking geographical appeal. Simply running for president as Democrats has already been sufficiently leftifying to force Bob Graham and John Edwards to abandon their Senate seats--because the positions you have to take nationally are anathema at home--imagine what the primary process would become if there weren't even any moderates (which Lieberman should probably be considered) allowed to run, if the race to the Left started from a John Kerry's positions instead of a Joe Lieberman's?

Perhaps the Democrats' problem runs deeper. It would appear that a Republican can win the presidency after a tough primary fight in which he's correctly portrayed as well to the Right even of the GOP--witness Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush--but that a Democrat can't win if they are accurately portrayed as to the Left of the nation entire.

-Ga. Senator Lambastes Fellow Democrats (Jeffrey McMurray, October 22, 2003, AP)

In "A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Southern Democrat," Miller analyzes how he believes Democrats slipped from the majority to the minority in national opinion polls and predicts they will stay there for a long while. Some stores were stocking the book yesterday, with the official release set for early November.

"The biggest problem with the party leadership is that they know nothing about the modern South," Miller writes. "They still see it as a land of magnolias and mint juleps, with the pointy-headed KKK lurking in the background, waiting to burn a cross or lynch blacks and Jews."

-ESSAY: The Democrats Can Win without a Southerner at the Top of the Ticket (Martin Halpern, 10/20/03, History News Network)
Although media and public attention has focused on retired General Wesley Clark's military credentials and his dramatic late entry into the presidential race, in one key respect his candidacy as a Southerner represents something familiar in Democratic presidential politics. In the past three decades, the Democrats have nominated Southerners for president five of seven times. What's more significant, they've won only with Southerners. [...]

A trustworthy Democratic presidential candidate who pursues a consistent left-of-center course could galvanize a grass roots campaign in the women's, environmental, peace, civil rights, and labor movements. Such a campaign could bring many low income non-voters and youth into the political process. The Democrats can win the White House and a Congressional majority with a coalition of new voters, Greens, and the Democratic party's core constituencies.

The Democrats' strategy of nominating moderate Southerners brought some victories but not long-term progress for the party or the country. Rather than focusing on turning again to a moderate Southern nominee in hopes of preventing a Southern sweep by George W. Bush, the Democrats should instead focus on developing a strategy for effective governance. They need to explain how they will promote peace and security, provide jobs, and achieve new social reforms such as national health care. Putting forward a feasible plan would energize and expand the Democratic party's social base everywhere, including the South.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 22, 2003 12:58 PM

My favorite part is the charge that the DLC is "rigidly anti-liberal". The left seems to think of "rigidly" as a curse word. Maybe we should print it as "r*****y" from now on.

Posted by: pj at October 22, 2003 7:53 PM

A trustworthy Democratic presidential candidate who pursues a consistent left-of-center course could galvanize a grass roots campaign in the women's, environmental, peace, civil rights, and labor movements.

Wow. That'll win a presidential election.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 22, 2003 9:23 PM

David, they were saying things like that when I was in college during the last millenium.

I thought McGovern put the lie to that BS 30 years ago.

I shall never forget the morning after George gave a speech proposing an estate tax of 100% on all amounts over $500,000. The next morning he showed up at a factory gate in the midwest to shake the hands of the real proletarians as they showed up for work. They pulled no punches telling poor George what a stupid idea he had aired the previous evening.

Liberals are completely clueless about what goes on outside their salons.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 23, 2003 12:23 AM

PJ: I take it that the makers of Viagra are not liberals?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 23, 2003 12:24 AM

My dogs Buster and Checkers urge Wall Street Journal subscribers to check out this September 17 article:

Copyright 2003 The National Journal Group, Inc.
The Hotline


Wall Street Journal's Harwood writes, in the '80s the late
Dem strategist Paul Tully concluded that Dems "might find a
presidential majority most easily by looking away from" their
former stronghold of the South. The party "didn't embrace that
analysis." But America's political geography has changed. In
'04, a "non-Southern formula may not be merely the Democrats'
best chance of beating" Bush; "it may be their only chance."
That "weakens the argument" for Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) or
retired-Gen. Wesley Clark, from AR. There are "good reasons why
both men could be assets" on the ticket. But "least among them
are their prospects of carrying" NC's 15 EVs or AR's six,
"because those prospects are slim." The '00 election "may have
marked a turning point." Dems lament Al Gore's TN loss. Yet his
"real missed opportunity came" in NH, where with another 8K
votes Gore "would have realized Mr. Tully's vision by assembling
an electoral majority from the West Coast, Midwest and
Northeast, without a single Southern electoral vote" (9/17).

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at October 26, 2003 4:30 PM


P.S.: My name isn't "The left," it's Rick Perlstein, and I seemed to have misplaced my marching orders in any event.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at October 26, 2003 4:33 PM