Day of the Spoiler

Inside Joe Lieberman's Kamikaze Campaign

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.

DLC "chief executive officer" Al From dutifully unleashed the Mother of All DLC Talking Points when I asked him recently for his take on the historical meaning of next year's presidential elections. "The issue of 2004 is whether we remember the lessons, and build on the lessons, of the '90s, or we sort of go back," the lugubrious Southerner told me from his Washington office, which features pictures of himself not only with Bobby Kennedy but with Richard Nixon, and also a scale model of a Patriot missile. Central to this lesson, of course, was the presidential election of Bill Clinton in 1992, on what From only later claimed was a straight DLC platform.

illustration: Bob Dob

"In my view, the key to the Clinton campaign was the political message that he delivered: 'I'm not the kind of Democrat you've been voting against for 25 years.' You know: 'I'm for welfare reform. I'm tough on crime. I'm going to grow the economy—the private economy.' " Only with that message of retreat from liberalism, From asserts, were the Democrats able to win back "categories of voters we haven't been able to win."

From has been repeating this for over a decade now. He also says things like, "Bill Clinton would not have been able to win the election if he had not run as a New Democrat, addressing the problems of cultural breakdown." But like most of what comes out of the DLC's lavishly appointed suites on Pennsylvania Avenue S.E., it contains considerably less than half a truth. Cultural breakdown? Any American who read a newspaper in 1992 knew that Bill Clinton had sampled marijuana, had violated the sanctity of his marriage vows, had dodged the draft. They voted for him anyway. And anyone who heard him speak that year knew he didn't just promise to grow the economy but also willingly admitted to a desire to grow the government, in order to protect the vulnerable whom society was failing: He promised $50 billion a year in new investments in cities, and $50 billion a year in new money for education, and universal health care—this during a period of record deficits, a stalled economy, and Social Security in danger.

He also, of course, made unmistakable noises about his toughness on crime and rhetorical flourishes about issues like school choice. But it's wrong to say these DLC talking points won him the election. It would also be off base to say that his "old, big-government solutions to our problems" won it. Ask any election expert and they will tell you a more uninspiring story: Bill Clinton, who received far, far less than a majority of the votes in 1992, won because third-party candidate Ross Perot took away so many that ordinarily would have gone to George H.W. Bush. Who, let's not forget, had about the lowest approval rating of any president seeking re-election in history. My little mutt Checkers (with his brother Buster in the second spot) could have beaten George Bush in 1992.

Beating George Bush in 2004 will likely take a tad more than that. Every side seems to agree that the most important swing vote in 2004 will be economically squeezed white families in the heartland. They live in communities that, more and more with each passing month, resemble the Flint, Michigan, depicted in the films of Michael Moore. According to the DLC strategy, the best way to win there is to make sure the Republicans can't convince them the Democratic nominee is a dangerous radical. That's why Joe Lieberman's fighting so hard to become that nominee. I've already argued one reason that hurts the party—that in order to establish himself as the most conservative candidate, Lieberman has to tear down the other candidates in a way that can only play into Republican hands. It took witnessing Joe Lieberman in the flesh, however, for me to realize another reason the theories behind his candidacy are so bankrupt. It's not that he's a stealth conservative. It is the many undeniable ways in which he is unabashedly a liberal.

You wouldn't know it from his campaign strategy thus far—which hasn't exactly been Harry Truman on the back of a whistle-stopping train. In order to finally meet up with Lieberman supporters in Chicago, I had to pay for the privilege. They, like me, had to pay to see the candidate.

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