MORE THAN ONE WAY (AS BILL FRIST WOULD SAY) TO SKIN A CAT

Over at The New Republic, John Judis takes what he seems to see as a cleverly iconoclastic position against the Sherrod Brown boosterism of the Nation and American Prospect. Both of those magazines published pieces this week pointing to Brown’s lead in his statewide race as a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that only culturally conservative Democrats can win statewide office in reddish states. Judis responds by arguing that usually, only culturally conservative Democrats can win statewide office in reddish states. He points to Ted Strickland, the Gubernatorial candidate sharing the ballot with Brown, as a shining example.

Part of Judis’ argument is that Brown will really depend on Strickland’s coattails if he wins, because he’s not really that popular. Judis offers as evidence a couple “man on the street” quotes and the fact that Strickland has a larger lead over Blackwell than Brown does over DeWine. That might indeed show that Strickland is more popular than Brown; it might just show that Blackwell’s unabashed right-wing rhetoric on religion and record on voting is costing him votes. Or that fewer Republicans want to vote for a Black candidate.

But even if Strickland is more popular than Brown, Judis seems to be missing the point. Neither article argues that culturally conservative candidates can’t win elections in states like Ohio. They just argue that cultural conservatism isn’t a requirement. At risk of stating the obvious, these authors care about whether more progressive candidates can win as well as more conservative ones because they want to see more progressive candidates elected to office. So Judis’ claim that Strickland, not Brown, is the “perfect candidate” isn’t really a response to the descriptive arguments of either article. Either it’s a misreading of the authors’ arguments, or it’s meant to dispute their premise that the ideology of the candidates we elect, as well as their party affiliation, is reasonably important.

The authors don’t argue that Brown is the perfect candidate for winning as many Democratic votes as possible. They argue that he shows a way to win without compromising certain principles that matter – that right-wing cultural populism can be defused, rather than co-opted, by candidates offering left-wing economic populism. So when Brown is praised for drawing support across the state without doing photo ops at firing ranges, Judis isn’t really proving much of anything by pointing out that Strickland is popular and does do them. Here as elsewhere, willfully or accidentally, he’s conflating how easy it would be to get someone elected and how worthwhile it would be – which is what happens all too often in conversations about who progressives should run for office. We can care about both and recognize that they’re neither directly nor inversely correlated.

John Judis, of course, cares about policy too. And he’s not the biggest fan of the “myths of free trade” critique that Brown is levelling as part of his populist program. But if it’s the prospect, not the feasibility, of getting people like Brown into the Senate that concerns him, he should say so.

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.