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Both Sides

Why are MoveOn, Daily Kos, and so many other liberal activists so keen to find a primary challenger against Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman? The more you peel the onion, the stranger the answer becomes.

The common explanation is that Lieberman is a conservative. Or, more specifically, he's a conservative who represents a liberal state--and, therefore, has no excuse. But, according to conventional indices, Lieberman is not a conservative. His lifetime rating from the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) is 76, six points higher than the man MoveOn and Kos have encouraged to enter the race, former Senator Lowell Weicker. In August 2003 (before turning against Lieberman), Kos himself reviewed Lieberman's ADA and American Conservative Union ratings and called the charge that he was a closet Republican "b.s."

So why do so many liberals think Lieberman is a conservative? The obvious answer is his steadfast support for the Iraq war. For many liberals, ADA-style vote tabulations are irrelevant; Iraq is the crucible of our age. There's a clear historical parallel. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey's support for Vietnam made him a liberal pariah and Eugene McCarthy's opposition made him a liberal hero-- few cared that, overall, during their years in the Senate, Humphrey had been the greater liberal champion.

So Lieberman is a supposed conservative because of his position on Iraq. But here, too, solid footing gives way. To be sure, Lieberman hasn't apologized for voting to authorize the war. But neither have most of the other 28 Senate Democrats who voted the same way. And, when it comes to withdrawing U.S. troops, Lieberman's position differs from other Democratic heavyweights only slightly. In his now-infamous November 29, 2005, Wall Street Journal op-ed, Lieberman wrote, "If all goes well, I believe we can have a much smaller American military presence there [in Iraq] by the end of 2006 or 2007." Compare that with Wesley Clark, who proposes a 30,000 troop drawdown but opposes "a pullout until the job is done." Or John Kerry, who wants to bring the "vast majority of American troops home" in 2006, but only if certain benchmarks are met. Or antiwar crusader Russ Feingold, who aspires to bring all U.S. troops home by the end of 2006, but--again--only if various criteria are fulfilled.

The substantive Iraq divide inside the Democratic Party isn't between Lieberman and everyone else. It's between Lieberman, Clark, Kerry, and Feingold on the one hand (who hope to bring troops home quickly, but not if it means all hell breaking loose) and Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Jack Murtha (who want to bring troops home as soon as possible, no matter what). The rest is rhetorical window dressing: Kerry and Feingold offer aggressively optimistic assumptions about when Iraq's government and military can stand on their own; Lieberman is more cautious.

But, politically, rhetorical differences matter. In fact, they are at the heart of Lieberman-hatred. Lieberman's heresy isn't ideological; it's temperamental. He loathes confrontation, he exudes goodwill toward all; he takes it as an article of faith that what binds us together as Americans is more important than what divides us, always. He is chronically happy with American life. During the 2004 campaign, he wanted to be liked by Al Sharpton, and he was. Today, he wants to be liked by George W. Bush, and he is.

Lieberman's problem is that bloggers like Kos aren't very ideological either. Temperament defines them, too. It's just the opposite temperament. For Kos and the other Lieberman-haters, liberalism means confrontation, at least in the Bush era. In their view, politics should be guided by the spirit of war. If you don't want to crush conservatives, you are not a liberal.

So Lieberman-hatred is really all about style, right? Actually, no--there's one final slice, and it's the most important of all. Behind Lieberman's obsession with national unity is his deep conviction that the United States is at war--not just in Iraq, but around the world. The war on terrorism is his prism for viewing Bush. And it drains away his anger at the president's misdeeds, because they always pale in comparison to those of America's true enemy. When the Abu Ghraib revelations broke, Lieberman said America should apologize, but then added that "those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, never apologized."

But why should our horror at September 11 mitigate our horror at U.S. torture? Liberals have the right to measure the Bush administration against our vision of America, not merely against the reality of America's enemies. Judging the United States by the standards of Al Qaeda--like judging the United States by the standards of the Soviet Union during the cold war--makes it far too easy to absolve our government's sins. Joseph McCarthy was far better than Josef Stalin, but he was still a menace. Richard Nixon was far better than Leonid Brezhnev, but he still deserved to be impeached.

Yet, if Lieberman's view is onedimensional, so is that of his critics. If he only sees Bush through the prism of war, they only see the war through the prism of Bush--which is why they can muster so little anger at America's jihadist enemies and so little enthusiasm when Iraqis risk their lives to vote. Kos and MoveOn have conveniently convinced themselves that the war on terrorism is a mere subset of the struggle against the GOP. Whatever brings Democrats closer to power, ipso facto, makes the United States safer. That would be nice if it were true--but it's clearly not, because, sometimes, Bush is right, and because, to some degree, our safety depends on his success. National security will never be reducible to the interests of the Democratic Party.

What both Lieberman and the Lieberman-haters have lost is what the great social democratic critic Irving Howe called "two-sided politics." Liberals are engaged in two different struggles--one against illiberalism at home, the other against an even more profound illiberalism abroad. Both must be fought with passion. Neither can be subsumed. Each must be sometimes compromised for the sake of the other. It is that moral tension--more than Bush-hatred, and more than wartime unity--that defines the liberal spirit. Let's hope both Lieberman and his critics recapture it in the days ahead.