BLAST FROM THE PAST: RET-JOE-SPECTIVE


This week Joe Lieberman announced he won’t be running for re-election. This blog and Lieberman go way back. My third ever (run-on sentence-filled) post, eight years ago, was kvetching at the news he would run for president (and celebrating that Tom Daschle wouldn’t).

Lieberman has been a frequent target of this blog. Though I like to think I’ve always been fair to Joe, like in this post noting that Lieberman lent his endorsement to plenty of city- and state-wide campaigns well to the left of his national profile:

Damning by faint praise? Yes (also damning by harsh but deserved criticism).

Lieberman lived up to expectations, by declaring himself the only guy to go toe-to-toe with George Bush on values while not getting many people to vote for him – aside from Bob Kerrey and the staff of TNR.

(But I wanted him kept in the debates anyway.)

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DODD 2012!

As of this afternoon, Connecticut Attorney General Dick Blumenthal is officially running for Senate. Folks who’ve spent time in Connecticut may remember that Blumenthal was famous until today for almost running for higher office every cycle but never pulling the trigger. For comparison’s sake, Elliot Spitzer used to be mentioned in the same breath as Blumenthal as a rising star Attorney General destined for bigger things. In the time Blumenthal’s been Attorney General, Elliot Spitzer went from government attorney to private attorney to Attorney General to Governor to Slate Columnist.

It’s good to see Blumenthal step in to run for Chris Dodd’s now-open seat. It does raise the question though of who will run against Joe Lieberman if Joementum tries to test his luck again in 2012 (there was a rumor Blumenthal would run against Lieberman in ’12, although then again they said the same thing in ’06). I suspect Ned Lamont will take another go at it, assuming he doesn’t become the Governor of Connecticut first. That would be fun. More outlandish: A restless Chris Dodd, figuring the sheen of scandal has faded, unretires himself to run for the other Nutmeg State Senate seat. After all, Joe Lieberman makes most anybody look good. Even if Joe ran as an Indy and not a GOPer, I think he’d pull more GOP than Dem votes. An outlandish scenario I guess, but a fun one to ponder.

GOOD NEWS FOR JOHN McCAIN

After watching tonight’s debate, I have all kinds of good news for my friend John McCain (no, not “that one” – the other one): First, the Treasury Secretary just got the authority you want to give him to renegotiate mortgages – it was included in a bill signed last week you may have heard about – though that was after you un-suspended your campaign.

Second, if you’re all about your collaboration with Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman, the bills we used to call McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Lieberman are still out there waiting to be passed, and I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt those bills if you went back to supporting them again (though judging by the bailout bill, who knows).

Third, if you’re really against cutting taxes for rich people, there’s a man running for president right now who wants to cut taxes for the middle class instead – and it looks like he’s going to win!

Can’t say anything tonight changed that. Neither of these guys is a particularly good debater, and despite the hype, neither man took very good advantage of the town hall format tonight. But Obama was crisper and sharper tonight than either of them had been in the last debate, and he came off more comfortable and compelling and denied McCain another opportunity to change the race.

CHUCK’S CHANCE

So Chuck Hagel is saying his ideas are closer to Obama’s, but he doesn’t plan to endorse either candidate. Could mean he’s still trying to negotiate himself a spot on the ticket (seems unlikely), or he doesn’t want to offend his friend John McCain or hurt himself further within the GOP, or he wants to burnish his non-partisan credentials by being not even partisan enough to support a presidential candidate.

Who knows? But it occurs to me that Hagel could draw some more of the attention he seems to relish, and earn some good will from congressional leadership, if he stays neutral but pipes up every now and then to slap back some of Joe Lieberman’s ridiculous attacks on Barack Obama.

Picture it: Lieberman pops up to say Obama can’t protect us from terrorists because he’s a McGovernite, and then Chuck Hagel pops up to steal Lieberman’s thunder to declare the comments out of bound, appeal for a politics that elevates us and doesn’t appeal to our fears, vouch that both candidates are committed to keep us safe, remind his good friend Joe that such fear-mongering got us into a quagmire in Iraq, etc. – all this coming from a Republican who is so non-partisan he won’t endorse a candidate! There’s your David Broder headline.

I mean, is that any more politically risky than musing about impeachment? And the guy’s not running for re-election.

WASHINGTON ORIGINAL?

This article strikes me as a good example of why Washington reporters get a bad rap. The big story, apparently, is that Marshall Wittman has worked for a lot of different Washington power brokers who don’t get along with each other or often agree (although Caesar and Linda Chavez are somewhat farther off from each other than Ralph and Bruce Reed). Leibovich isn’t writing a story about the course of Wittman’s evolving political ideology – instead, we learn that Wittman likes interesting people and snappy quotes. He’s into McCain! He’s into Lieberman! (Not that getting from one’s talking points to the other’s is a colossal leap) Makes it easy to forget that people’s lives are actually affected by politics.

THE DEMOCRATS’ MISSING LINC

With all the ink spilled over the Chafee-Laffey primary last Tuesday, and the inevitable comparisons made to the Lieberman-Lamont primary last month, you could almost lose track of one of the critical ways in which the two primaries are not parallel at all:

Joe Lieberman is a not-so liberal Democrat from a strongly-Democratic state.

Lincoln Chafee is a not-so conservative Republican from a strongly-Democratic state.

That’s the difference: Lieberman evoked so much opposition within his own state because the median Connecticut voter is a Democrat well to the left of him. Chafee would have lost his primary had only Republicans participated, but he drew many of the GOP votes he did based on the recognition that the median Rhode Island voter was a Democrat to the left, not the right, of Chafee.

Joe Lieberman isn’t the Democratic equivalent of Lincoln Chafee. Ben Nelson is more like it. As for the Republican equivalent of Joe Lieberman, there just isn’t one. No state as red as Connecticut is blue has a Republican senator as close to the center as Joe Lieberman is. John McCain isn’t even close.

SORE POINT

Can we please put the phrase “Sore Loserman” to bed forever? There’s plenty to criticize about Joe Lieberman’s independent run, but surely we on the left should be creative enough to come up with a pithy pun of our own, right? No need to ressurrect a Republican phrase (it sounds like Gore-Lieberman! Get it?!?) designed to disparage the Democratic ticket’s (woefully insufficient) objections to the willful and systematic disenfranchisement of voters of color in 2000.

The invocation of the “Sore Loserman” line by progressives betrays the same maddening tunnel vision evinced by the “Chirac for President” signs I would run into at anti-war rallies back in the day.

MONEY, IT’S A HIT

Something else about Lieberman-Lamont: Their race brings together two of the less popular archetypes in American public life: the incumbent creature of Washington and the guy with more money than God.

That’s not a coincidence.

Under the “one dollar, one vote” system undergirded by the “money is speech” regime set forth in Buckley, the ability to raise and spend money ranks high on the already frightful list of institutional advantages held by incumbents. The ability to raise money is the first mark of legitimacy in the eyes of the media and political establishments who too often serve as gatekeepers between would-be challengers and the attention of the electorate. Ostensibly liberal people pledge fealty to the doctrine that serious candidates should be able to raise serious money.

Some millionaire candidates, of course, fail spectacularly. Some spend enough of their dough to leave the incumbent at a significant spending disadvantage. Some do both.

But wherever one comes down on what we should or shouldn’t assume about millionaires’ character and suitability to represent us, the difficulty of unseating an incumbent without being one should concern us.

NED AND JOHN

Sometime in the next few days, or at least well before September 12, some reporter is going to think to ask Ned Lamont to take a position on Hillary Clinton’s anti-war primary challenger, Jonathan Tasini, who’s so far mustered a small, small fraction of the media attention and political support Lamont has achieved. There are all kinds of reasons Tasini’s gotten far less traction. Clinton is both somewhat more progressive and far more politically savvy than Lieberman, and she doesn’t have quite the taste for controversy he does. Jon Tasini has less money than God.

When the question comes, I suspect Lamont will back Clinton. First, he’ll be trying to extract all the help he can get from the Democratic Party establishment – which did its best to clear the way for Bob Casey (successfully) and Joe Lieberman (unsuccessfully) – in squeezing Lieberman out of the race. Second, he’ll be trying to sell himself to folks who didn’t vote in the Democratic primary or voted for Lieberman as a moderate with an MBA.

What seems worth noting about Lamont’s rhetoric of the past few months is that the animus he summoned was almost always directed at Republicans individually or collectively, at incumbent Washington as a whole, or at Joe Lieberman individually. It was hardly ever directed at incumbent Democrats as a group. There was little to compare to Howard Dean’s “I want to know why so many Democrats are…” lament of a few years ago. It was an insurgent campaign, no doubt – and a truly impressive one whose results bode well for progressives everywhere with the audacity to expect better than the neoliberal/ neoconservative brand of centrism. But it was a carefully targeted one which took clever advantage of Lieberman’s stalwart outrageousness and singal willingness to give/ take bait like few others.

Lamont could of course surprise us announce that he was, say, going to endorse whoever won the New York Senate primary and not endorse Clinton before that. But I doubt it. And assuming he does endorse Hillary Clinton, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of reaction he gets.

MIKE’S MATH

Michael Tomasky chooses a very strange approach to claim some quantitative heft for his otherwise well-stated case that the Democratic Senate Caucus will continue to represent a range of views whether it includes Joe Lieberman or not:

You start with their National Journal numbers — specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues..So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten? Try four…

If this sounds like a meaningful measure of how liberal Senate Democrats are, or how broad the range of ideologies among Senate Dems are, then go back and read that second sentence again. According to Tomasky’s description, the National Journal rating (yes, that’s the same one that gave us that silly talking point about Kerry and Edwards being the 1st and 4th most liberal senators) is a stanine (remember standardized tests?). It measures how liberal a given senator is as compared to the other 99 senators (the system must be more complicated than Tomasky’s describing it, because it’s physically impossible for Ted Kennedy to be more liberal than exactly 96.7 other Senators). Which (lest our friends at the National Journal take offense) may be useful to know in evaluating a particular Senator, or even a few of them. But in terms of looking at a 44-member caucus, it’s less useful. It could tell us (assuming we accept the rubric for the calculations, which Tomasky goes on to say he doesn’t) whether there’s any overlap along the scale between the two caucuses – that is, whether Lincoln Chafee is more or less liberal than Ben Nelson. It could even tell us something about how the senators are spaced along the ideological spectrum they represent.

But knowing that the Democrats have four Senators in the 90s and “a passel of B’s”, while the Republicans have

have just three 90’s: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80’s

sheds precious little light on the question Tomasky is trying to answer: How ideologically diverse is the Democratic caucus (rather than how the Democratic Senators are spaced along the ideological territory of the caucus). Maybe there’s an argument to be made about how the ideological breadth of one caucus skews the distribution of the other caucus along the spectrum of all 100 senators, but I don’t think Tomasky is making it.

His argument seems to be that if the Senate Democratic Caucus were really full of Ted Kennedys, you’d see more of its members scoring in the 90s. But if the Caucus were full of Ted Kennedys, it would become that much harder for Ted Kennedy to eke out a 90. Because, as they say, it’s all relative.

If you took a snapshot of the current distribution of Senators along the National Journal scale, on the other hand, you would have a tough time (unless you were, say, Jacob Hacker) telling from looking at it whether you were looking at the Senate circa 2006, 1936, or 1846 – because changes in the ideological breadth of the Senate would only translate indirectly into changes in the spacing of the Senators along that breadth. And you’d be no closer to figuring out how the ideologies represented by the folks in the Senate compare to the breakdown of America, or even Connecticut.

That is, if I understand the National Journal ratings correctly. If I’m confused, then forget it. If not, then Tomasky’s parallel universe of Democrats who all score in the 90’s bares a strong resemblance to Garrison Keillor’s apocryphal town in which “all of the children are above average.”

FAIR POINT

Now that I’ve not endorsed a certain kind of endorsement of Lieberman over Lamont, let me criticize the criticism of one of Lieberman’s criticisms of Lamont. The Lieberman camp caused a stir with this flyer distributed at Black churches contending that Lieberman has a much stronger record on race than Lamont. The flyer plays up Lieberman’s support from Bill Clinton and highlights Lieberman’s civil rights activism four decades ago, of which the Senator has every right to be proud. I’d question the invocation of Bill Clinton, who called Sister Souljah a hate-monger and Charles Murray a social scientist, as an authority on the interests of African-Americans. And I’d say the Lamont campaign is right to point out that it’s Lieberman who’s flirted with fraying affirmative action.

But the centerpiece of the flyer – an indictment of Lamont’s membership in an elite country club – strikes me as a fair point (which isn’t to say that it should change anyone’s vote). While it’s irresponsible to paraphrase Lamont’s statement that he didn’t consider the lack of diversity of the club as saying that he “didn’t pay as much attention to race,” and while the details of the club’s membership remain hazy, for Lamont to say that he resigned from the club because he didn’t want it to “become a distraction” in the Senate race is an uninspiring response at best.

Predictably, Lieberman’s campaign has been charged with “race-baiting,” which is a term which somehow tends to get trotted out with far more frequency in American political discourse to refer to accusations of racism towards Blacks than to refer to appeals to it. It would of course be specious to call Lamont a racist based on his membership in an elite club, and Lieberman’s flyer doesn’t do that. It suggests that Lamont is insensitive to race, and to make that argument, it emphasizes an embarrassing episode for him and makes no mention of the choices he’s made that cast him in a far more positive light. So while I don’t agree with the characterization, it’s hard for me to take seriously the claims that the evidence offered should be out of bounds.

I’m all for voting for politicians based more on their vision on the issues and less on their perceived character. But to the extent that people care about character – especially in primaries, where in most cases there are less stark differences than the ones we see in Connecticut – I think there are worse things to take into consideration than the organizations in which candidates claim membership. It’s a far more reasonable criticism than, say, GOP accusations that Ted Strickland and his wife are closeted homosexuals.

Ned Lamont, of course, has still got my vote. And I have no doubt that as an advocate for a more just and sane foreign policy, and for a domestic policy which keeps the provision of public support a public responsibility and the devices of private corporations where they belong, he will do far more to protect and advance civil rights in the US Senate over the next six years than Joe Lieberman will.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS

Consider this a pointed non-endorsement of endorsements politicians make of each other on the grounds that they’re friends. Even when the endorser is John Lewis, one of the only people out there I could honestly describe both as a personal hero and as a member of Congress.

The argument that you should vote for someone because he’s my friend is up there with the argument that you should vote for someone because he’s principled – and the two questionable arguments tend to travel together. One substitutes motivation for worldview as the determinative qualification for office. The other substitutes the judgment of someone you know you like for your own judgment about how much you should like a candidate. To be sure, citizens in a democracy defer to each other’s judgment all the time (what makes it democratic is that we each get to choose when and whether and to whom to defer, rather than having the franchise yanked from us by elitists). But it’s one thing to make an electoral choice by turning to those who know the issues in most depth. It’s another to make it by turning to those who know the candidate personally. The latter is reminiscent of Jon Stewart’s quip that Bill O’Reilly was “the kind of swing voter who doesn’t make a decision until both candidates come and talk to you.”

Politicians in Washington only encourage a cynical view of our representatives when they trade endorsements on the grounds of having looked into each other’s hearts like Bush did to Putin. The irony here is that politicians, with a huge assist from the media, actually use the friendship rationale to escape critical reviews of their endorsements.

If you’re going to weigh in publically on someone else’s campaign – and by all means do – then it should be in terms that can be popularly evaluated and critiqued. It shouldn’t rest entirely on personal one-on-one experience any more than it should on personal religious conviction.