Scary Lieberman?

Michael Scherer, a talented correspondent at Time and an alumnus of Mother Jones and Salon, two terrific, pugnacious magazines, was not pleased with Senator Joe Lieberman’s harsh take on the Democratic party. First, Lieberman:

Well, I say that the Democratic Party changed. The Democratic Party today was not the party it was in 2000. It’s not the Bill Clinton-Al Gore party, which was strong internationalists, strong on defense, pro-trade, pro-reform in our domestic government. It’s been effectively taken over by a small group on the left of the party that is protectionist, isolationist and basically will —and very, very hyperpartisan. So it pains me.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this a commonplace observation on the left — indeed, don’t many liberals see this broad trend as a very good thing? Jon Chait’s terrific “Freakoutonomics” suggested that leading Democrats were questioning the Clinton-Gore consensus on growth and inequality, and also on trade. Howard Dean encouraged a broader reassessment of the wisdom of Clinton-Gore moderation on regulatory policy. And it seems reasonable to argue that the human-rights hawkishness of Clinton-Gore (it was more complicated than that, to be sure) has been discredited by the Iraq debacle. These are all respectable views. Plenty of Democrats have changed their mind — plenty think NAFTA and CAFTA are dangerous giveaways, plenty think we need to sharply reduce our military commitments and use armed force very sparingly, etc. Protectionist isn’t a term of abuse to everyone. Neither is “hyperpartisan.” Ask Jon or Matt Yglesias. When Republicans are “dangerous extremists,” a widely held view among liberals and Democrats, it is senseless to compromise with them. That wasn’t as clear a decade ago.

So Lieberman hasn’t evolved with the times. Given that, it’s hardly surprising that he considers these developments a not entirely good thing. Scherer, however, detects something more sinister.

He is not just condemning his party’s position on Iraq, or praising McCain, his long-time friend. He is condemning in sweeping language the very core identity of the Democratic Party as weak and extremist. This is a tried and true Republican theme, which traditionally has more to do with scaring independent voters than with actual reasoned debate of the issues.

But by highlighting the many ways Democrats have changed — evolved — isn’t Lieberman raising substantive issues in a pretty reasonable way? Not everyone has changed their minds about free trade. Highlighting that many leading Democrats have doesn’t strike me as irrational, extreme, or even all that scary (unless one is very easily scared).

Again, Lieberman could be wrong. Perhaps free trade has suddenly become a bad thing over the intervening period. I doubt it. But I’ve criticized preferential trade agreements, so I don’t think this is laughable, exactly. I do think it’s risible to suggest that there’s something illegitimate about Lieberman raising this fairly anodyne, reasonable point.