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Thursday, January 8, 2004

He may be right, but he can't fight.

I love the New Republic's contrariness. I've read the magazine for years, and have never stopped finding it provocative, superbly edited, and exciting to read. (Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's Books & the Arts editor, is almost without peer in my eyes.) And I especially admire Peter Beinart's willingness to let the magazine's senior editors and writers depart from the editorial line. As improved as the generally dry American Prospect is, and as scrappy as the wonkish Washington Monthly is, TNR is the best liberal political magazine in America.

So let's discuss the magazine's quixotic endorsement of Sen. Joseph Lieberman for the Democratic nomination.

I can appreciate Beinart's enthusiasm for Lieberman's intellectual courage in sticking up for regime change in Iraq, but I think he is overlooking two rather enormous problems with Lieberman as a candidate. The editorial says:

The deep irony of Lieberman's campaign is that many Democrats view him as timid. But how much courage does it take for Dean to throw red meat to the party faithful? The Democratic Party is racing back to the '80s, with interest groups enforcing litmus tests on everything from partial-birth abortion to steel tariffs, and party activists dangerously out of touch with a country that feels threatened by terrorism, not Donald Rumsfeld. Dean has helped create this mood of self-righteous delusion, and his competitors have, to varying degrees, accommodated themselves to it. Only Lieberman—the supposed candidate of appeasement—is challenging his party, enduring boos at event after event, to articulate a different, better vision of what it means to be a Democrat.

Is there a problem in the Democratic base's view of the world? Yes, I think many on the left do need to rethink some of their preconceptions, especially around national security issues — which makes the New Republic exceptionally valuable.

But Lieberman is a terrible standard-bearer for this cause because he doesn't challenge the party effectively. Let's be frank: He's not winning converts anywhere. The perception that Lieberman is timid doesn't have to do with any lack of intellectual courage on the senator's part. He simply doesn't kick up any dust when he fights George W. Bush: When he challenges the president, nobody sees it. He's entirely too decorous.

Jeffrey Toobin summed up Lieberman's problem more than a year ago for the New Yorker (emphasis added):

Lieberman couldn't bring himself to question the President's motives, because he doesn't like visceral politics. . . .

Intentionally or not, Lieberman spent the fall doing the Republicans' bidding. His stature gave the President's policy on Iraq the shimmer of bipartisanship; his leadership on homeland security led to a political debacle and policy failure for the Democrats. (After the election, the final version of the bill, which Lieberman voted for, basically adopted the President's position.) I asked him whether he was uncomfortable serving simultaneously as a punching bag and a cheerleader for the Bush White House. "It's odd," he said without emotion. "It happens in politics." . . .

Lieberman campaigned energetically in 2000, even making trips to Texas to criticize Bush's environmental record, but he did not assume the customary role of the Vice-Presidential nominee as hatchet man, which would have been out of character for him. At one key moment, in fact, Lieberman's gentlemanly bearing may have hurt Gore's chances. Lieberman's debate with Dick Cheney on October 5, 2000, in Danville, Kentucky, was a decorous standoff; the polite exchanges allowed Cheney to prove that he was not the right-wing ideologue that his voting record in Congress suggested he was.

Nothing here inspires confidence. I agree completely when the New Republic argues:

A Democratic president may have to defy both America's allies and his domestic political base to aggressively fight terrorism and defend freedom.

But does a candidate have to defy his base in the midst of the campaign? As James Traub has already pointed out, every major candidate accepts the principles of "nationalist liberalism". Lieberman may hold these principles more consistently, but he makes them seem like a pale imitation of neoconservatism when they should be highlighting the dangerous flaws in Bush's approach to statecraft. Lieberman may have a future writing for the New Republic, where his principled stands can help influence a wary party, but I can't begin to imagine how Senator Lieberman would actually beat the evil genius he'd be running against next November.

I expected the magazine to endorse Lieberman just to be contrarian. But this time, I wish they had surprised me. The magazine also published four dissenting opinions — for my candidate, Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and Howard Dean.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 8 January 2004 at 7:30 PM

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Tom Schade:

January 9, 2004 11:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

I suppose the key question is whether you think that Dean is unstoppable as the party nominee. If he is, then a vote for anyone else is message vote, and I think that the strongest message that needs to be sent to Dean is that he is in enormous danger to his right. If on the other hand, you think that Dean is stoppable, by Clark, Gebhart or Kerry, then voting for Leiberman is wasting one's vote.
Lots of Democrats think Dean will win the nomination, and ought to win, because he has demonstrated real political powers of mobilization. But before people like me rally to him, he needs to earn our vote by demonstrating real awareness of the war we are in.


January 9, 2004 11:49 AM | Permalink for this comment

Is Dean stoppable? Yes. I'm going to New Hampshire tomorrow to campaign for Clark. There's space in my car if anyone in the greater Boston area wants to join me for a day in Nashua. It will be good, arctic fun!


January 9, 2004 03:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew Yglesias and his readers interpret TNR's endorsement. Dan Kennedy comments on publisher Martin Peretz's low-profile role in the endorsement. Kevin Drum agrees that TNR diagnosed the Democratic Party's dilemma accurately, but that they missed the chance to see Clark as the real alternative.


January 13, 2004 05:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait attacks the magazine's endorsement of Joe Lieberman. So does executive editor Christopher Orr, who writes:

If Dean wins the Democratic nomination and leads the Democrats to ruinous defeat in November, we'll have to live with the fact that at the moment when we might have influenced the process, however marginally, we instead chose to sit on the sidelines, cheering a candidate who wasn't even in the game.

Who could have guessed that the New Republic is as divided as the Democratic Party?

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