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JONATHAN CHAIT

Destroying the party to save it

July 09, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

NED LAMONT'S challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman in next month's Connecticut primary has blossomed into a full-scale Democratic civil war. What's at stake is the legitimacy of partisanship.

A good window into the competing mentalities can be found in two arguments, one by prominent Lieberman supporters, the other by a prominent critic. First, the supporters. Writing in the Hartford Courant, Marshall Wittmann and Steven J. Nider of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council complain that "far too many Democrats view George W. Bush as a greater threat to the nation than Osama bin Laden."

Those loony Democrats! But wait, is this really such a crazy view? Even though all but the loopiest Democrat would concede that Bin Laden is more evil than Bush, that doesn't mean he's a greater threat. Bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the mountains, has no weapons of mass destruction and apparently very limited numbers of followers capable of striking at the U.S.

Bush, on the other hand, has wreaked enormous damage on the political and social fabric of the country. He has massively mismanaged a major war, with catastrophic consequences; he has strained the fabric of American democracy with his claims of nearly unchecked power and morally corrupt Gilded Age policies. It's quite reasonable to conclude that Bush will harm the nation more -- if not more than Bin Laden would like to, than more than he actually can.

This is what Lieberman and his backers don't understand. They piously insist that "partisanship stops at the water's edge" and that they won't take political potshots at a Republican president when he's waging a war in America's name -- as if Bush were obeying this principle, and as if Bush were just another Republican president rather than a threat of historic magnitude. Lieberman seems to view the alarm with which liberals regard Bush as a tawdry, illegitimate emotion.

But if Lieberman's allies are irritating and often wrongheaded, alas, his enemies are worse. Lieberman recently declared, "I have loyalties that are greater than those to my party." Markos Moulitsas, the lefty blogger from Daily Kos who has appeared in a Lamont commercial and has made Lieberman's defeat a personal crusade, posted this quote on his website in the obvious belief that it's self-evidently absurd. But shouldn't we all have greater loyalties than the one to our party -- say, to our country? Partisanship isn't nothing, but must it be everything?

Moulitsas and many of his allies insist that they just want Democrats to win. But in fact, they believe that any deviation from the party line -- except for a few circumscribed instances, such as Democrats running for office in red states -- is an unforgivable crime. They have consigned large chunks of the center-left to enemy status. It is an odd way to go about building a majority.

Their technique of victory-via-purge is on display in Connecticut. Although Lamont decided on his own to run, the left bloggers made his campaign their central cause. One result is that Lieberman has announced his intention to run an independent candidacy should he lose the primary. Moulitsas and other Lamont supporters are filled with outrage that Lieberman has opened up the possibility of splitting the liberal vote and letting a Republican win.

Well, OK, some anger is appropriate here. But doesn't this suggest that the whole Lamont crusade has sort of backfired? Although I'm no Karl Rove, it seems to me that turning a rock-solid Democratic seat into a potential Republican pickup represents something less than a political masterstroke.

The whole anti-Lieberman blog campaign has a self-fulfilling quality: They charge that Lieberman isn't a Democrat, they drive him from the party, and they declare themselves to be correct. The more ex-Democrats they create, the more sure of their own virtue they become.

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