Recall for a moment the political climate in the United States in January 2001. Ralph Nader and the Supreme Court had made George W. Bush president, but he had lost the popular vote, and his party had lost seats in the House and Senate. The campaign had been fought largely on Democratic terrain--with Bush promising a larger federal role in education and health care, and a multicultural Republican Party. With national security a second-tier political issue, and welfare and crime no longer political issues at all, all that remained of Ronald Reagan’s winning formula was tax cuts. And even that had been challenged by John McCain in the primary. With Latinos, professionals, and other growing constituencies trending Democratic, Bush’s victory appeared to many like a fluke in a country heading the other way.
If Reagan’s formula looked increasingly obsolete, Bill Clinton’s seemed alive and well. The nomination of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman had seemed to secure the New Democratic legacy. Foreign policy hawkishness, free trade, and fiscal discipline--once heresies in the party--were now mainstream. Indeed, the dominant Democratic response to Gore and Lieberman’s loss was to chastise them for not running more explicitly on Clinton’s record. When The New Republic endorsed Gore in the 2000 Democratic primary, the editors wrote that, “[a]s the Clinton administration draws to a close, it leaves a Democratic Party cleansed of many of the habits that long alienated it from average Americans and from its own best traditions.”
If only those words were still true today. The years since January 2001 have been among the worst in the contemporary history of the Democratic Party. To be sure, the party has suffered from events beyond its control. Since September 11, 2001, George W. Bush has ruthlessly turned the country’s fear and rage into a wedge issue, sacrificing national unity but recreating the visceral flag-politics of the 1980s. But the Democratic Party has also buried itself. In late 2002, with the Bush administration threatening preemptive war in Iraq, Democratic strategists developed a remarkable plan for the midterm elections: Ignore national security. One year after the bloodiest foreign attack on U.S. soil, and on the eve of one of the most audacious foreign policy gambles in U.S. history, Democratic candidates campaigned on the sluggish economy and prescription drugs. And Bush and Karl Rove ripped them to shreds.
From that humiliation, the Howard Dean revolt was born. In early 2003, the former Vermont governor began captivating the Democratic base with his thunderous attacks on Washington Democrats. But, in their righteousness, Dean and his supporters have embraced an analysis potentially even more damaging than that of the party leaders they seek to depose. We are not speaking primarily about Dean’s general-election prospects (though they are grim, and their potential consequences for the House and Senate even grimmer). The problem with Dean’s vision of the Democratic Party is more than electoral; it is intellectual and moral. And the candidate who offers the clearest, bravest alternative is Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman.
Fundamentally, the Dean campaign equates Democratic support for the Iraq war with appeasement of President Bush. But the fight against Saddam Hussein falls within a hawkishliberal tradition that stretches through the Balkan wars, the Gulf war, and, indeed, the cold war itself. Lieberman is not the only candidate who stands in that tradition--Wesley Clark promoted it courageously in Kosovo, as did Richard Gephardt when he defied the polls to vote for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq. But Lieberman is its most steadfast advocate, not only in the current field but in the entire Democratic Party. In 1991, he broke with every other Northern Democrat in the Senate to support the Gulf war, then broke with George H.W. Bush when the former president allowed Saddam to slaughter tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia in the war’s aftermath. In 1998, Lieberman joined with McCain to co-sponsor the Iraq Liberation Act, which committed the United States to regime change in Baghdad. And, in the 2000 campaign, when the younger Bush was still peddling neo-isolationism, it was Gore and Lieberman who insisted that the United States be prepared to use force to stop genocide and promote democracy.
By deriding Democratic support for overthrowing Saddam as “Bush Lite,” Dean threatens to define that tradition out of the Democratic Party. Reasonable people, including reasonable hawks, can differ about the wisdom of the Iraq war, especially given the apparent absence of an ongoing Iraqi nuclear program. But the nature of Dean’s opposition suggests an old Democratic affliction: an excessive faith in multilateralism and an insufficient faith in the moral potential of U.S. power.
Dean is rightly passionate about the harm done to America’s relations with its allies. Bush, he says, continues to “rub their nose in humiliation.” But he can muster no similar passion about Iraq’s freedom from one of the great monsters of the twentieth century. Saddam’s overthrow leaves him cold; he “suppose[d]” it was a good thing. Dean and his supporters identify viscerally with the foreign governments that resent being bullied by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Yet they identify barely at all with the largely voiceless people--in countries like Syria and Iran--who might consider a democracy’s projection of power into the heart of a region defined by tyranny to be progressive, even inspiring.
All this raises questions about what a President Dean would have done when America’s European allies bitterly resisted the Clinton administration’s efforts to help Bosnia defend itself. Today, even more than then, global anxiety about America’s overwhelming power means it is likely that any significant U.S. military intervention short of an Afghanistan-style response to direct attack will provoke hostility in Europe and on the American left. A Democratic president may have to defy both America’s allies and his domestic political base to aggressively fight terrorism and defend freedom. So far, at least, Dean’s record on the national stage suggests he doesn’t understand that.
Lieberman does. It is not just that he voted for the war and for the $87 billion for postwar reconstruction. The clearest--and least popular--truth about the Iraq occupation is that we don’t have enough troops to secure the country. And, in the short term at least, we can’t get them from other countries or by reconstituting the Iraqi army. All the major Democratic candidates say the United States must win the peace in Iraq. Yet only Lieberman has put that goal above his political selfinterest--and repeatedly called for more American troops.
Most Democratic strategists seem to view Lieberman’s brave, consistent foreign policy record as less valuable against Bush than the military experience of John Kerry or Wesley Clark. But the assumption that the Democratic Party can make itself credible on defense through the personal heroism of its leaders trivializes its problem--much as the Republican Party does when it finds black and Hispanic spokesmen to sell its urban policies. The Democrats’ national security problem stems from the public perception that its leaders lack a clear, aggressive strategy for defending the country at a dangerous time. Neither Kerry nor Clark--who have taken contradictory positions on the war in Iraq and opportunistically opposed the $87 billion for Iraqi reconstruction--have addressed this crisis of ideas. Lieberman has.
On domestic policy, Lieberman has his failings. His infatuation with Silicon Valley has sometimes blinded him to the necessity of tough, fair government regulation of the financial markets, especially on the expensing of stock options. But, unlike some of his fellow Senate “moderates,” Lieberman’s overall economic record is progressive and responsible. He voted for Clinton’s 1993 budget and against both Bush tax cuts. He would repeal the upper-income portions of Bush’s tax cuts, a position consistent with his long-standing belief that the Democratic Party should cut taxes for the middle class. In 1991, Lieberman told The New York Times that Democrats must “understand that middle-class people are breaking their backs so they and their kids can live better, and it is our responsibility to make that happen and not just to keep taking from them.” That is the kind of language that helped elect Clinton and that Democrats need to recapture today.
Where Lieberman diverges most from his competitors on domestic policy is in his willingness to challenge entrenched party interest groups. Many liberal intellectuals privately fret about the teachers’ unions’ stranglehold on Democratic education policy. But Lieberman is one of the few national Democrats to challenge them. He supports experimenting with school vouchers, not because of free-market theology but because of neoliberal empiricism: He wants to see if they work. And his educational heresies extend beyond school choice. In 2000, he rankled Ted Kennedy and the teachers’ unions by endorsing tough new testing for schools, yet he also proposed generous funding increases to make those standards achievable. This was the Third Way at its best: government demanding accountability but providing real help.
Liberals resent Lieberman’s moralism. But what they see as sanctimony, many ordinary Americans see as overdue concern about the toxic influences that saturate their children’s lives. Clinton acknowledged that concern with calculated micro-initiatives like the v-chip. But it is Lieberman, the more sincere New Democrat, who infuriated Hollywood--and thus denied himself a rich vein of campaign funds--by repeatedly insisting that the entertainment industry value the public good as well as the bottom line. Similarly, many liberals mocked Lieberman as self-righteous for denouncing Clinton on the Senate floor at the height of the Lewinsky affair. But, given the then-pervasive fear in the Democratic Party about crossing the Clintons, Lieberman’s speech took courage. And it emboldened his colleagues to do the same, which helped keep Clinton’s immorality from tainting the whole party.
The deep irony of Lieberman’s campaign is that many Democrats view him as timid. But how much courage does it take for Dean to throw red meat to the party faithful? The Democratic Party is racing back to the ‘80s, with interest groups enforcing litmus tests on everything from partial-birth abortion to steel tariffs, and party activists dangerously out of touch with a country that feels threatened by terrorism, not Donald Rumsfeld. Dean has helped create this mood of self-righteous delusion, and his competitors have, to varying degrees, accommodated themselves to it. Only Lieberman--the supposed candidate of appeasement--is challenging his party, enduring boos at event after event, to articulate a different, better vision of what it means to be a Democrat.
Three years ago, that vision seemed ascendant. Today, it is once again at the margins. It may take years, or even decades, for Democrats to relearn the lessons we thought, naively, they had learned for good under Clinton. But one day, Joe Lieberman’s warnings in this campaign will look prophetic. And the principles he has espoused will once again guide the Democratic Party. It will be the work of this magazine, to whatever small degree possible, to hasten that day.