Who's Afraid Of Joe Lieberman?

If they’re wise, a whole lot of people.

Now that we have that lame introduction out of the way, on to the main event. Reihan objected to Scherer’s lament about the content of Lieberman’s McCain endorsement. Reihan said:

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.”

Reihan is right about all of this, but it is the tone and the purpose of the remarks that drive Scherer’s reaction. It’s true that protectionist isn’t a term of abuse to everyone, just as some might take isolationist as a badge of honor, but it isn’t true that just anyone can use terms such as protectionist and isolationist against anyone else without expecting a bad reaction. It’s one thing if I say in a mood of celebration, “Ron Paul is an isolationist!” It’s something else if John McCain says, “Ron Paul is an isolationist! The implication when I say it is: “It’s about time!” When McCain says it, it is more along the lines of, “Run for your lives!” It’s the difference between someone comparing you to Charles Lindbergh as a compliment, and someone else using the same comparison as invective. Not everyone would regard the comparison as polemical, because not everyone thinks Lindbergh is a hate figure, but everyone knows that the comparison is usually intended as disparagement and smear. The same goes for labels such as protectionist and isolationist, even though the logical opposites of protection and isolation, insecurity and exposure, could be made to sound much more menacing.

Scherer makes some sense in complaining about Lieberman’s lack of party loyalty and his decision to frame his endorsement of the opposing party’s nominee in extremely harsh anti-Democratic terms. This is, to be sure, unfriendly. But that’s the point, isn’t it? If Lieberman is so disenchanted by the leftwards turn in his party that he feels compelled to back McCain, should we be surprised that he expresses his alienation and disenchantment in strong language? The attempt to unseat him in the primary in 2006 was not, contrary to the hyperventilations of a few columnists, a “purge,” but it did leave bad blood between Lieberman and progressives who wanted to make it clear that there wasn’t much of a place in their party for someone like him.

Scherer finds Lieberman’s criticism so vexing because he, Scherer, presumably also believes Lieberman is flat-out wrong on the very policies that are driving a wedge between Lieberman and the Democratic presidential candidates. Think about it another way. Ron Paul might say, “The Republican Party isn’t the party of Bob Taft anymore,” by which he means, “The party has gone insane.” But McCain might say the exact same thing and mean, “Thank God we’re not like that anymore!” Thus when the progressives who are on the winning side at the moment observe certain changes in the party, the meaning of their statements is entirely different from identical statements made by Lieberman, one of the great losers of the intra-party fight. When Lieberman says these things, he frames them in terms of a big wrong turn. Lieberman scares progressives in the Democratic Party because there is always the risk, however remote, that the party may revert to what it was in the ’90s, just as McCain really seems to fear the return of the Old Right. Progressives recognise in Lieberman the perfect representative of the “centrist,” liberal hawk Democrats, in many respects their nemesis and the kind of Democrat whom they believe has sold out or accommodated too much to the Bush Era, and so they are afraid of their party going back to the bad old days of 2002.

Scherer complains that Lieberman is vindicating GOP talking points. Well, yes, I suppose he is, which is what you would expect from someone supporting the Republican nominee! Republican Party loyalists might make the same complaints about Ron Paul’s criticisms of GOP policies over the last many years. After all, when Paul denounces the PATRIOT Act or the Iraq war, he is agreeing to some extent with Democratic opponents of these things as well. To a partisan loyalist, he is “making a Democratic argument,” because the loyalist can no longer conceive of a Republican making such arguments for Republican reasons. Likewise, Scherer doesn’t seem to be able to see that Lieberman actually is rooted in a hawkish, activist, internationalist tradition in his party that goes back to FDR and Wilson. For various reasons, progressives do not want to acknowledge the continuities between this earlier tradition and Lieberman’s position, because that in turn might vindicate older Republican arguments against Wilson and FDR.

P.S. I should add that Lieberman has every incentive to try to “scare” independent voters into backing McCain, since he wants McCain to win, but that doesn’t mean that he is actually deliberately engaging in fearmongering (or at least no more than he usually does when talking about foreign policy).