FIRST DRAFT: Economics 210a Fall-Winter 2006-2007
Hoisted from Comments: RT Watches Tom Ricks Take a Dive on NPR

The End of Checklist Liberalism

Mark Schmitt has smart things to say, as usual:

The End of Checklist Liberalism | TPMCafe: Two comments on Adam Nagourney's Lieberman story yesterday:

  1. It's not said explicitly, but it sure does sound like the Party Of One option is now considered likely to fizzle. Nagourney focuses only on the way in which the move alienated Democrats, and says, "should Mr. Lieberman lose the primary, all indications are that most Democratic leaders will abandon him in the general election race." Even David Broder, painfully unable to understand what's happening and dreaming that sanity will one day return - "the early successes of these elitist insurgents have been followed by decisive defeats when a broader public weighs in" - seems to have little hope that the general election in Connecticut will be that return to normalcy. Lieberman, I'm told, calculated that he had a 50% chance of winning the primary and an 85% chance of winning the general as an independent, making his decision obvious. But of course that was a terrible miscalculation, because among other things it failed to factor in the effect of the decision itself. If he had a 50% chance of winning the primary the day before the election, that chance dropped enormously the day after, as both Nagourney and Broder say. And there was never an 85% chance of winning the general after being tagged as a loser, with Democratic officials and donors unable to help, with 40% of the vote sufficient for victory. I point this out only because you read it here first.

  2. Nagourney writes: "Mr. Clinton had told him to acknowledge that Democrats should be able to hold contrary opinions on the war, Mr. Lieberman recounted. But Mr. Clinton also recommended that Mr. Lieberman aggressively try to refocus the debate on other topics." A longtime associate spoke of sending an e-mail message to Mr. Lieberman suggesting that he talk about domestic issues important to liberal Democrats: blocking oil drilling in Alaska, protecting affirmative action and preserving abortion rights. Is "refocus the debate on other topics" really brilliant, insightful advice for Lieberman? Hasn't he been trying to change the topic? Isn't the whole point that that's not working? And what about Clinton? This is the guy who is assumed to be the de facto strategist-in-chief for the front-running Dem 08 candidate. Is "refocus the debate" the best he can do? Or, "acknowledge that Democrats should be able to hold contrary opinions on the war," which if Lieberman can't or won't do, he's got some serious problems. (If Lieberman won't even acknowledge that views other than his own are legitimate within the party, then who's the unyielding ideologue here?)

And then the second paragraph, which I think says it all about why the mainstream Democrat advice to Lieberman misses the point. This paragraph is not attributed to Clinton, although its positioning implies that it expands on the advice Clinton gave. It's a great expression of the Democratic Party of 1996: You got your enviros, you got your minorities, you got your women. Each group has one issue. For the enviros, it's ANWR (the most trivial of victories, but the one that raises the money). For the minorities, affirmative action. (Likewise, of minor relevance to the actual structure of economic opportunity for most African-Americans and Latinos.) For women, it's all about "preserve abortion rights." There are a couple others, but those are the basic buttons you press to be credentialed as a good liberal Democrat. After you press them, you can do whatever you want.

But has Lieberman failed to press those buttons? No! In fact, he's been pounding on them like that guy at the elevator who thinks that if he presses "Down" hard enough and often enough, eventually the elevator will recognize how important and how late he is.

But it's not working. Why? Two reasons: One of course is that Iraq, and the constellation of foreign policy and security failures it represents really is huge. And while Democrats can accept a fairly wide range of viewpoints, roughly from Biden's make-it-work to Murtha's get-out-now, only Lieberman's stay-the-course is ridiculous. It's pretty difficult to look at ANWR and Iraq and conclude that a good position on ANWR more than offsets a bad one on Iraq. (Especially if there's no reason to think that Ned Lamont has a different position on ANWR or the other three buttons.)

The second reason is that Lamont supporters actually aren't ideologues. They aren't looking for the party to be more liberal on traditional dimensions. They're looking for it to be more of a party. They want to put issues on the table that don't have an interest group behind them - like Lieberman's support for the bankruptcy bill -- because they are part of a broader vision. And I think that's what blows the mind of the traditional Dems. They can handle a challenge from the left, on predictable, narrow-constituency terms. But where do these other issues come from? These are "elitist insurgents," as Broder puts it - since when do they care about bankruptcy? What if all of a sudden you couldn't count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice - what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect women's economic and personal opportunities?

But caring about bankruptcy, even if you're not teetering on the brink of it or a bankruptcy lawyer yourself, is part of a vision of a just society. And a vision of a just society - not just the single-issue push-buttons of a bunch of constituency groups - is what a center-left political party ought to be about. And at the end of this fight, I don't expect that we'll have a more leftist Democratic Party, but one that can at least begin to get beyond checklist liberalism.