WATCHING the left wing of the Democratic Party trying to take down Joe Lieberman has been a deeply confusing experience for me. The lefties say the Democratic senator from Connecticut is a self-righteous suck-up who lends President Bush undeserved credibility. Lieberman's allies say the lefties are a pack of crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals.
They're both basically right. So how am I supposed to deal with this?
In Connecticut, Ned Lamont has attracted press coverage by waging an unusual primary campaign to oust Lieberman. Lieberman's friends insist that he's in trouble because he supports the Iraq war. ("What is his great apostasy? He strongly believes that we cannot afford to lose in Iraq," writes Marshall Wittmann of the Democratic Leadership Council.)
But lots of Democrats supported the Iraq war initially and believe now that we can and must win. Moderates such as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton say this all the time. But you don't see anybody trying to oust them.
The difference is that Lieberman, unlike other Democratic hawks, musters little passion for exposing and correcting the massive blunders the Bush administration has committed. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Lieberman noted, in Bush's defense, "Those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, never apologized." (As if anybody was suggesting we were as bad as the terrorists.) Last fall he said, "In matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril." The clear implication is that it's counterproductive -- traitorous, even -- to call the administration on its foreign policy dishonesties. This is not how the loyal opposition in a democracy ought to behave.
Foreign policy is hardly the only smudge on Lieberman's record. He is a longtime supporter of taxing capital gains at a lower rate than other income -- a stance gratifying to owners of stock but lacking in economic sense or basic fairness. He has long opposed sensible financial regulations. Even after his pro-business stance came under fire in the wake of the Enron scandal, Lieberman opposed sensible reforms. (As one of Lieberman's friends told the New Republic's Michael Crowley in 2002, "It'll be remembered that he didn't go off the deep end" -- meaning, after the populist furor dies down, Lieberman could resume raking in contributions from grateful executives.) He supported the disgraceful energy bill and federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.
Lieberman obviously relishes his role as every conservative's favorite Democrat. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. He's lavished with praise for his statesmanship, vision and bipartisanship. And, in the process, Republicans implicitly get to show what's wrong with the rest of his party. Bush and Dick Cheney applaud Lieberman regularly for believing we must win in Iraq, as if to suggest no other Democrat thinks the same.
There is a sound political rationale for picking off Lieberman. Republicans only tolerate political moderates if they hail from states or districts that won't elect staunch conservatives. It's a pure strategic calculation. The GOP supports Republican moderates such as Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chafee because they represent "blue states." Those who come from "red states" are expected to toe the line.
You don't see a moderate Republican in a safely red state -- the GOP equivalent of Lieberman. That's one of the reasons the Republicans have been able to maintain tighter discipline than the Democrats and jerk the political center of gravity rightward.
In the end, though, I can't quite root for Lieberman to lose his primary. What's holding me back is that the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman's sins. It's a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent. Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them.
If Lieberman loses, he'll play the same role as before, only this time with the power of martyrdom behind him: the virtuous anti-Democrat, too good and honest for his party. If you think Lieberman is sanctimonious now, wait until you see him in defeat.