Sunday, July 09, 2006

Losing Joementum

His continued support of the Iraq War and attacks on the patriotism of its opponents are the main reasons for opposing Joe Lieberman, but his history of attacks on fellow Democrats and liberal ideals is much longer. There was his support of DOMA in 1996, his scolding of Clinton during the impeachment hearings in 1998, his flirtation with private accounts during the early days of the Social Security fight, and his cloture vote on Alito. While his overall voting record isn't bad, it's hard to see Ned Lamont as anything but an upgrade, especially as far as winning media battles is concerned.

What's really exciting about this race is the message it'll send to safe-state Democrats who may occasionally be driven to Liebermania by the siren song of the anti-partisan media: bashing your party for personal gain is unacceptable, and Democrats in safe seats are expected to do their part in moving the country leftward. Betrayals of the party and liberal ideals, whether for reasons pragmatic or psychological, may come with the consequence of a primary defeat.

I generally agree with folks like Petey who think that moderate-seeming Democrats will attract more votes, but Joe Lieberman is the kind of moderate who gives his party a radical image. Garance has a good post on this. Criticizing "extremists" in your party and making opponents of the war look like unpatriotic radicals does nothing to help Claire McCaskill and Harold Ford win their Senate races. By painting a picture of unpatriotic extreme antiwar Democrats, Lieberman damages the party's brand and hurts Democrats everywhere.

Triangulation makes sense as a strategy for individual candidates, but it's not a strategy that an entire party can engage in. In a country with an established two-party system, the media will define the space of moderate opinion relative to the parties themselves. No party will be able to gain a lasting reputation for moderation by compromising and moving towards its opponents. All that'll happen is that the space of moderation will be narrowed, and opinions that previously were considered moderate will be regarded as extreme.

Consider the idea of invading Iraq. Even setting aside the WMD issue, it's hard to imagine that early poll numbers in favor of invading would've been high if we were under a responsible Republican administration that itself rejected the idea of invasion as ridiculous. Support for the war would then fall outside the range of acceptable moderate opinion. This analysis applies better to new issues where minds aren't made up than old ones where most people have come to a firm opinion, but on things like foreign policy proposals and judicial nominations, we need to realize that the battle of public opinion is still out there to be won. Lieberman must not be allowed to sabotage Democrats by narrowing the space of moderation so that our views look extreme.

I don't want my safe-seat Democrats triangulating into moderate positions. I want them to explore new territory on the left, so that when our Arkansas and Nebraska Senators triangulate off of them, they end up in positions that are fairly good, or at least non-destructive. And that's why I have no use for Joe Lieberman. Where Lamont would stretch the field leftward as a moderate personality with progressive views, Lieberman compresses it and perpetuates negative stereotypes of Democrats. It's time to remove him from politics, and threaten anyone who follows his path with a similar fate.


Rousseau said...

I'm kind of disappointed with any consequentialist post that fails to mention the many possible bad effects that would come from this.

You may have the point that overall this is a good thing, but there are many costs to consider, which I am sure your insightful mind could come up with.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Maybe I'm being blind to something here, but I don't think that significant costs are in the offing. We'll have to deal with talking heads saying various ridiculous things, I suppose, but those costs will be outrun quickly.

Rousseau said...

I must say, I really don't like long arguments based on manipulating political punditry and incentivizing Democrats to manipulate political punditry correctly (which is what this post is) - and then dismissing any side effects as "talking heads saying various ridiculous things". Given lieberman's voting record, I really don't see what's at play besides various meta-games regarding the talking heads.

You know exactly what the downsides are. If the Democratic Party throws out a well known, respected-by-the-media, former VP candidate 3 months before congressional elections there is one obvious story: Democrats no longer tolerate moderates or any disagreement on Iraq. It may be a WRONG story in seven different ways, but it will BE the story (especially in so far as Republicans and a bitter Joe are actors involved). This is just the sort of distraction that Bushco would love right before an election that otherwise would be a referendum on their failures.

Not to mention other costs: Joe is a good fundraiser to lose, a good representative to religious communities (not just Jewish), a canny politician who could bite us in many ways, and a pretty accurate representative of the voters of Connecticut.

Now it's not clear of course whether these costs are outweighed by the significance of whipping up some party discipline media wise. Is it more important to create a good electoral atmosphere this election cycle, or to start shifting the spectrum of the debate left over the next few years? Good question - but you aren't asking the questions.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I don't think the Jewish issue will get much play outside of places where only Republicans talk; it's too transparently silly. What religion are Schumer and Emmanuel, anyway? And it looks like a majority of Jews support Lamont over Lieberman.

So Lieberman's a good fundraiser? I wouldn't be surprised to see the party lean on Lamont to dig into his deep pockets for a little money to tide over other CT Dems until he builds similar connections.

Here's the thing about the 'talking heads' point -- there may be negative short-term consequences to a Lamont victory, but I think these are actually fairly small and will be swamped by (for instance) the whole "Fighting Dems" thing where we're running lots of former military personnel. And they stack up really small against the consequences of having Lieberman split the difference on everything we want to do for the next 6 and possibly 12 years. It's a one-day story three months from an election versus a steady stream of negative remarks and occasional 'no' votes for many years. Easy call.

Rousseau said...

I think you're wrong about how small a story it will be (read all the conservative blogs now and their thoughts on it, or what FJ and CT are saying at ezra. as much as you may find them personally distasteful - they do reflect some media trends). There is significant room for disagreement in such a fuzzy prediction space.

But thinking this issue so small that it doesn't even merit mention in your summary is wholly unbelievable.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Just so you know, I don't post these things to give a summary of all the consequences of a particular event above a certain level of significance. I often post them to analyze an interesting situation or dynamic of some importance. Here I cover some important dynamics that run contrary to the way people usually think about political positioning, and that was really the point.