Centrist Lieberman Never Had a Chance — Too Bad for America

Posted February 4, 2004 at 4:14pm

This column is a lament not only for the presidential candidacy of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), but for the Democratic Party and the country. There is no center anymore.

Lieberman’s utter rejection by Democratic primary voters signifies that there’s no room at the top of the party for a pro-defense, pro-business moderate in the mold of John F. Kennedy. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Democrats’ likely nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), totally represents the party’s force-averse liberal wing on foreign affairs, and he’s now abandoned his old free trade position and has become a devotee of “class warfare.”

Meantime, President Bush’s new budget shows that he has utterly abandoned “compassionate conservatism,” the GOP centrist stance, and is willing to cut energy assistance for the aged, medical research for the sick and vocational education for workers to satisfy his right-wing base.

The center has disappeared in Congress, too. Moderate Republicans get savaged in ads by the Club for Growth and are ignored or muscled by GOP leaders. Moderate Democrats get their seats gerrymandered out of existence in favor of safe (often minority) seats.

The last bastion of moderate power is in the Senate, where some Democrats represent heavily Republican states and some Republicans, Eastern industrial states.

But even the Senate center is shrinking under pressure from partisan interest groups, and it will lose its most powerful actor when Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) retires.

Lieberman’s distinctiveness among the Democratic presidential contenders was on vivid display as they addressed their followers Tuesday night. Lieberman was the only one who even mentioned that America is menaced by terrorism.

“We need to come together now as one people,” he said in leaving the race. “We’ve been attacked by enemies who hate us more than they love life.”

The other leading Democrats ignored the threat and reiterated their campaign themes that the country is riven into “two Americas” — a sliver of rich and powerful people who want for nothing and control the government and the rest, who live on the margin and are toyed with by “special interests.”

It’s nonsense, of course. In fact, there are at least three Americas, or maybe four — the rich, the vast middle class and the poor. The middle class can be fairly divided into “comfortable” and “struggling.” But this is not the class-ridden society that Kerry, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Howard Dean want to make it into.

On foreign policy, Lieberman is the one Democratic candidate not imbued with “Vietnam syndrome,” a deep reluctance to use military power and a belief that, most of the time, assertions of America’s national interest are illegitimate.

Kerry came by his Vietnam affliction honestly — it was seared into him in valiant service in what he and most Americans believe was a misadventure. Other Democrats have just grown up with force-aversion as an article of faith.

As a result, Kerry and most other Democrats opposed the 1991 Gulf War even though Saddam Hussein had invaded another country and was on his way to capturing the oil fields of the Saudi Arabia. Lieberman voted for the war not hesitantly (like Al Gore), but in clear knowledge that it was necessary.

During the 1980s, Lieberman was one of just a few Democrats who did not fall for “nuclear freeze” mania — the notion that the United States should not provoke the Soviet Union by deploying missiles to counter its weapons already targeted at Europe. The minute Ronald Reagan began the deployment, the Russians agreed to negotiate and stand down.

Lieberman was in favor of toppling Hussein even before Bush was. His support for that mission — and unbending defense of it — contributed heavily to the still-birth of his candidacy.

America desperately needs a moderate foreign policy, like Lieberman’s, that’s forceful toward adversaries but respectful of allies — yet also not supine in the face of hostile world opinion.

Lieberman was written down as a “conservative” or a “Republican,” but he’s nothing of the sort. Throughout his long career, he’s been a stalwart defender of the environment, of measures to curb corporate corruption, of programs for the poor and of a more progressive tax system.

Some liberals hate it that he criticizes the sleazing of American media. If it were up to them, we’d have breasts bared every night on prime time TV, protected as “free speech.”

Lieberman also is openly religious, which makes many Democrats queasy. Unfortunately, wealthy members of the American Jewish community largely abandoned him, feeling that rising anti-Semitism on campuses and in Europe made this “not the time for a Jewish president.”

To be sure, Lieberman did not run a compelling race. One of the most decent people in politics, he lacks an instinct for the jugular. However, his one aggressive thrust, the observation that Kerry sounded an “uncertain trumpet” on the Iraq war, was right on the mark.

Nice-guy Lieberman made the mistake of deferring a decision on whether to get into the race until after Al Gore opted out. Gore didn’t deserve the deference. Once a fellow New Democrat, Gore now inhabits a universe far, far to the left of Lieberman’s.

The charge can be fairly made that Lieberman is too nice to be president. The White House demands a hint of controlled violence, like the NFL line.

The presidency certainly demands certitude. Lieberman couldn’t help but laugh at himself and at the excesses of campaign rhetoric. That’s endearing, but self-defeating.

Let’s be honest: Lieberman never had a chance. In the contemporary environment, evenly divided and totally polarized, a moderate doesn’t have a prayer. Even Bill Clinton, facile as he was, would have a tough time today.

President Bush is a polarizing figure and his budget makes him even more so, imposing a patina of “fiscal responsibility” at the expense of poor people while offering more extravagant tax cuts for the well-off.

With the failure of Dean’s candidacy, the Democrats will avoid nominating their most polarizing figure. But, Kerry, while he was the heroic commander of a swift boat in Vietnam, isn’t cut out for commander in chief in the age of terrorism.

America craves a forceful, centrist uniter. Alas, the political system won’t provide one.