The listbot at meetup.com, the commercial site whose clever software facilitates face-to-face gatherings between Web surfers of like interest, sent me a forlorn little e-mail the other day. “Congratulations on a successful National Lieberman in 2004 Meetup last week! See photos from every city,” it read, giving a link. Click lieberman2004.meetup.com/photos yourself, and you’ll see the pathos: There ain’t no photos.
That’s not surprising. In Chicago, where I live, there wasn’t any meetup. Not enough supporters RSVP’ed to trigger the software’s automated threshold. Meetup.com, in fact, has registered only 332 Joseph Lieberman fans in the entire United States of America, four in Chicago. An undercover reporter from The Village Voice—uh, me—represents one quarter of the total.
It could be considered comic, this abyss at the Lieberman grassroots. It could be, that is, if Lieberman showed any signs of going away. Instead, he’s been ramping up: launching a splashy new tax plan; publishing a dowloadable campaign book, Leading With Integrity: A Fresh Start for America, and an accompanying website; kicking off a campaign tour—all just this past week. And that’s not funny. Because it’s not too early to predict that if the Democrats lose the presidential election next November, Lieberman will be the one to blame. That will certainly be so if he ends up becoming the nominee—in which case the Democratic Party will be left without an activist base. (“I’ll vote for Joe Lieberman absentee from whatever country I move to if he wins the nomination,” as one friend of mine puts it.) Perversely, it might even be worse for the Democratic Party if he fails.
It works like this. He has already conceded Iowa, but let’s suppose Lieberman doesn’t do too poorly in the other early states, picking up some delegates here and there, perhaps even winning a primary, say one of the five on February 3, the week after New Hampshire, when his name recognition will help him because no one will have time to campaign in all these states. Thus emboldened, he campaigns harder—by intensifying his pattern of tearing down his opponents as dangerously liberal—and remains committed to staying in for the duration. Then, as his star fades, he’ll have only one viable strategy left, a manic, all-or-nothing strategy: trying to convince Democrats that the front-runner must be dumped altogether, using the dark arts of opposition research, trying to dig up something purportedly embarrassing from the front-runner’s past that the jubilant Republicans might even have missed if left to their own devices.
Lieberman still loses the nomination. But the successful nominee ends up, in a self- fulfilling prophecy, becoming just what the spoiler-candidate said he was: unelectable—as a man named George Bush effortlessly exploits the opposition research that a member of his own party has dug up. It has happened exactly this way before. Just ask Joe Lieberman’s old friend Al Gore.
The year was 1987, an October much like this one, with a crowded Democratic field usefully united on many, if not most, issues, but for a single irritant: Al Gore, who, determined to distinguish himself from the field by a supposedly sage and mature moderate conservatism, stepped up to the microphone at the National Press Club and read his fellow Democratic candidates clear out of the United States of America. “The politics of retreat, complacency, and doubt may appeal to others,” he said, “but it will not do for me or for my country.” He had already bragged in a Des Moines debate about his support for the Reagan administration’s position on the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, even on chemical weapons, accusing his opponents of being “against every weapons system that is suggested”; at the next forum, he lectured his fellows on the imperative of invading Grenada and supporting the Contras. For that, some Democratic insiders were whispering, was just what it would take to be electable.
And even though the message hardly took with voters—party conservatives had scheduled a cluster of Southern primaries early in 1988 specifically to favor a candidate like Gore, but the dead-fish Tennesseean still got skunked on “Super Tuesday” by the most liberal candidate, Jesse Jackson—Gore stuck around just long enough to run a vicious campaign in the late-inning New York primary, in which he grilled front-runner Michael Dukakis for his apparent support of “weekend passes for convicted criminals.”
In Washington, opposition researchers for the Republican front-runner, George Herbert Walker Bush, were taking notes.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is incredible,’ ” Bush staffer Jim Pinkerton recalled of Gore’s tarring the Massachusetts prisoner furlough program as if it were the idea of Michael Dukakis, when in actuality the program had been initiated by the Republican governor who preceded him. “It totally fell into our lap.” Dukakis emerged from the convention that nominated him with a 17-point lead. Then Gore’s million-dollar lines, so self-consciously crafted to make himself “electable,” began finding their way into George H.W. Bush’s mouth. Bush was able to successfully paint Dukakis as a dangerous radical. Al Gore had provided the palette—his smears having had nearly a year to sink into the American psyche.
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.
“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.
When I first set out in early September to profile Lieberman, I began the conventional way: I rang up the press office and asked when a good time might be to witness the candidate in action on the campaign trail. For weeks press secretary Jano Cabrera promised to get back to me and never did. It was then that I finally logged on to the official Lieberman website.
(It’s at joe2004.com. Get it? Because he’s just an average Joe.)
I took a look at the schedule of events the campaign seemed so disinclined to have me know about. September 12 was coming up. On that day Howard Dean stumped New Hampshire, snaking across the southwest corner of the state for a series of free rallies, cookouts, and dessert socials; Richard Gephardt gave a policy speech in Iowa. And Joseph Lieberman held a breakfast fundraiser at the home of Florida real estate developer Mark Gilbert in Boca Raton (“$1000 suggested”); then a luncheon at the Governors Club of the Palm Beaches (“A business conductive environment,” its advertising promises. “A place to make money and save time”), also at $1,000 a spot. On September 13, he held only one event, dessert in the tony D.C. suburb of Potomac. “Suggested contribution: $360 per person.”
On the 14th, Joe scheduled an aberration, the only campaign event open to the general, non-paying public all the way through to the end of the month, a town hall meeting in Manchester (he preceded it with what the campaign advertised as an “all-out campaign blitz”: The candidate knocked on six doors in downtown Concord). Then it was back to the grind—a reception, the next night, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston. “Event Hosts: $2000 contribution per person. Guests: $500 contribution per person.”
This is what Jano Cabrera had been hiding from me. Save for these fundraisers, his candidate wasn’t campaigning at all.
I learned from the calendar that Average Joe would be in my city on September 18: “Mary Castro and Angel Gomez/Proudly invite you to/’Dine in the Sky’/With the Next President of the United States. . . . Sponsors: $1000 per person. Guests: $250 per person.”
Bingo. That my reporter’s expense account could afford.
I called to RSVP. I explained that I had never attended a political fundraiser before; the young woman was excited to hear it. I asked how I might remit my fee. “You can fax your credit card information, that would be easiest, or you can just bring your check to the door.”
My fax machine was on the fritz. I brought my check to the door.
The most Republican-sounding thing at the fundraiser I attended came during the cocktail chitchat beforehand. Joe was telling a funny story. A lawyer friend of his was talking shop at some social event or another. “Are you doing legal work?” Joe reported himself asking, to which the man came back, “If I’m breathin’, I’m billin’!” A roar from the conversation circle surrounding him, appreciative nods, then one of the guys responded, “That could be our firm’s motto!”
Note well, however, that this was the only Republican-sounding thing I heard from Joe Lieberman that afternoon. He opened with the story of parents who told him of the rare disease their young child was dying from, and how proud he was to be able to say that the first thing he would do as president would be to rescind Bush’s executive order limiting stem-cell research. He would sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, join the International Criminal Court. He forcefully asserted there was nothing to admire in George Bush’s administration; and, despite their differences on the details, Bush’s economics sound just as dastardly when critiqued in the soporific drone of Joseph Lieberman as they do in the throatier cries of Howard Dean.
It kind of gave me a 007 thrill, stepping out of the cab to crash the big fundraiser and hear Joe Lieberman talk like a stealth Republican to his greedy fat-cat donors. The only buzz I left with, however, came from the $250 glass of Chardonnay. Joseph Lieberman may be more conservative than the other Democratic candidates, and he may be puppyishly eager—disastrously, selfishly so—to advertise the fact. But let’s face it: When it comes right down to it, he is still a Democrat. His handsomely progressive new tax plan shows that. Republicans will hate it. And the Republicans had no compunctions about, and no difficulty in, derailing Bill Clinton’s presidency even as he tacked steadily to the right after the 1994 midterm elections. They had no compunctions about, and no difficulty in, painting the Georgia senator and Iraq war supporter Max Cleland as a treasonous Saddam-supporter even though he lost several limbs in Vietnam. So why should the Republican Party have any harder time smearing Joe Lieberman, if he’s the Democratic nominee, than they would Howard Dean?
Unless, that is, he adopts as his platform every jot and tittle of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. And perhaps even then.
Joseph Lieberman adds nothing to the Democrats’ chances in 2004. He does, however, take things away. In fighting to the finish and losing the nomination, he will have irreparably weakened the winner. If he wins it, he will suck out something precious: the active enthusiasm of the unwealthy that is a center-left party’s only natural advantage against a party of money, the Republicans.
How many Democrats will be willing to work their hearts out for the guy single-handedly responsible, in his kid-glove non-investigation as chair of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, for the Bush administration emerging from the Enron scandal scot-free? How many, for the man whose most enduring work in the Senate was preserving the favorite accounting dodge, the non-expensing of stock options, of disgraced high-tech companies like Enron and Worldcom?
The senator from Connecticut must withdraw. He should do it fast.