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.

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Every time I try to really like John Kerry, he goes and does something like this:

“President Clinton was often known as the first black president. I wouldn’t be upset if I could earn the right to be the second,” he told the American Urban Radio Network.

Given that the “first Black President” rewarded Black supporters by gutting AFDC and presiding over the expansion of the drug war and the prison industrial complex, and called Sister Souljah a rabid racist and Charles Murray a thought-provoking academic, one can only imagine what the second one would come up with.

Turns out that, as I posted my thoughts, (scroll down) in the early hours of this morning, on why Nader would be wrong to run and why the Democrats would be wrong to respond to a Nader run by Sister-Souljah-ing the left, my classmate Dan Munz had, a mere forty minutes earlier, posted his (brilliantly titled) thoughts on why Nader would be wrong to run, and why the Democrats would be right to respond by Sister-Souljah-ing (his reference) the left. It’s a small shtetl after all, eh?

Dan and I disagree, like many registered Democrats who fall into this debate, on both a tactical level and an ideological one, and given that we apparently both lost sleep last night setting forth our visions for the party, I won’t rehash that debate except to say again that I believe the Clinton years and the Gingrich revolution are only the most recent demonstrations of the danger in seizing the center and the power of offering a choice rather than an echo. It’s not surprising, of course, that Dan and I are each largely convinced that a party more in line with our respective ideology would also be more effective at building a governing majority (that, of course, is part of the weakness of the “electability” discourse).

Dan is right, of course, that to argue that there’s no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is a weak straw-man argument, and one that hurt Nader’s case. I would add on the one hand that it’s an argument that’s particularly easy to make from a position of relative privilege, in which the comparatively progressive reforms that Clinton accomplish – the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Earned Income Tax Credit, more progressive NLRB nominees, and others – make relatively little impact on one’s life. I would add on the one hand, however, that relatively few of those who condemn the two-party consensus in America would argue that there is, in fact, no difference between the parties (some of course do for rhetorical effect).

Dan goes on, however, to make an equally unfounded claim: that there’s no difference between the Greens and the Democrats. While Dan’s right that Nader’s agenda is “certainly more in alignment with Democratic than Republican values,” that isn’t saying much. It’s hard for me to imagine many of the sixteen issues Nader lists as the core of his campaign as the centerpieces of a Kerry Presidential run. “Full public financing of public elections with the necessary, broad changes for a more fair and representative election process, replacing present charades?” “Universal health insurance — single payer embracing prevention, quality and cost controls”? “A redirected federal budget for the crucial priorities of our country and away from the massive waste, fraud and redundancy of what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex,” as well as the massive costs of corporate welfare”? Dan may not share these as priorities – or even as goals – but I think it’s disingenuous to argue that Nader doesn’t stand for anything the leadership of the Democratic party doesn’t.

Dan argues that “when I see an organization I don’t like, I try to join and persuade it to change. I don’t bail and get all distructive.” I’d argue that social change depends on having folks on the inside and the outside of institutions – be they the Democratic party or, say, the State Department. The system needs to be both kicked and dragged (I’ve tried to act this out with my arms and legs a few times, and I’m told it’s been amusing, if perhaps not enlightening). Dan argues that

These days, a lot of the major battles have been settled, and largely in Democrats’ favor. Both parties now admit we need civil rights, we need social security and other entitlement programs, we need better health care, we can’t be completely isolationist, &c.

To which I’d respond, along the lines I alluded to in my earlier post, that today neither party is proposing the kind of ambitious, radicial, structural change – in areas from public school funding to healthcare to the crippling effects of the drug war – demanded before we could really talk with a straight face about “starting gate equality” for Americans of color, and those who do find themselves labelled “race-baiting demagogues” and are candidates for the Sister Souljah treatment; that neither party is articulating reforms like raising the income ceiling on the payroll tax to make social security a more secure entitlement and a less regressive tax; that neither party is offering the kind of healthcare reform that has saved costs, saved lives, and saved millions from healthcare insecurity in most industrialized nations; and neither party has offered an comprehensive alternative to the use of unilateral military and economic power as American leadership in the global community. As Dan said, “One man’s homogeneity is another man’s consensus…”

Dan and I agree that Nader would be wrong to mount a 2004 Independent Campaign. And we agree that the way for the Democrats to respond to a Nader challenge would be to illustrate the real differences between them and the Republicans. The difference, maybe, is that I think to so compellingly would require more than just a shift in rhetoric.

Right now C-SPAN is replaying a National Chamber Foundation conference at which Newt Gingrich was invited to represent the Republicans and the Democrats were represented by – you guessed it – the DLC’s Al From. It’s a pretty painful exhibition of the two of them gloating about how much they have in common. True, insofar as Newt Gingrich’s Republicans represent the direction in which Al From would like to shepard the Democrats (his top three under-discussed goals for the Democratic party: eviscerating labor and environmental protections in trade agreements, scaling back the New Deal, and co-operating better with Republicans)…The most ridiculous moment however, would have to be From’s argument that they’re parallel figures in that Newt discovered a “New Republican” movement, and he discovered a “New Democrat” one. The difference, of course, is that Newt’s Republicans made a resounding victory in ’94 by mobilizing their base and Al’s Democrats inspired a new verb – “Sister Souljah” – for what they did to their base and bequeathed a statistical tie in 2000. Newt Gingrich has much more in common with Howard Dean than with Al From – which may be why he used his podium to lavish praise on From and castigate Dean, and may also be why Dean is so much more popular than From these days (for more on Newt as organizer, check out David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf’s book)