Democrats Search for Their Soul
Lessons from Lieberman
Que lastima. What a shame. Three-term United States Senator and one-time Vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman made history again this month. In 2000, he became the first Jewish-American at the top of the American political ticket. Last week, he became one the few senators in modern U.S. politics to lose his seat in a primary. In Connecticut, like much of Democratic America, the natives were restless.
Lieberman’s opponent, antiwar millionaire Ned Lamont, ran as an outsider and tapped into growing discontent not just with the war in Iraq but the myriad other failed Bush policies. Lieberman, his opponent asserted effectively, was as cozy with W as corporate lobbyists with keys to the White House.
The upstart Lamont, once snubbed by the Democratic establishment for taking on an incumbent in a primary, is now cuddling with the who’s who of the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and our own governor. This, after former President Bill Clinton and a list other “centrist” Democrats campaigned tirelessly for Lieberman.
Progressives in the Democratic Party see the Lamont win as a major victory not just for their wing of the party, but for the “heart and soul” of Democratic voters. They believe Lamont is much more in line with rank-and-file Democratic voters. The center of the Democratic Party, it seems, just shifted.
The struggle within the national Democratic Party is echoed here at home. Democratic State Party Chairman John Wertheim was challenged at this year’s state Democratic convention by a group of agitated progressive delegates. Wertheim easily survived the challenge, but the discontent within the base of the Democratic Party has not gone away.
The Democratic Party has historically championed working men and women, fought for the environment and supported a foreign policy that engages rather than alienates the international community. From the New Deal to the Civil Rights Act to the Clean Air Act, Democrats have been the party of the people. However, recently Democrats from Congress to City Council have sided with corporate America, become environmental relativists and supported the preemptive wars of the Bush Administration.
Many Democrats are fatigued with the morphing of the two parties into one mega-centrist party whose members fight to keep their political office rather than make needed political change. They want their party back.
With several up-and-coming Democrats being wooed to the center, it is getting more difficult to see any real difference between the parties, especially on state and local issues. Several DINOs (that’s Democrats In Name Only) have held seats in the state legislatures and Congress for years. Some, like Lieberman, even hold leadership positions.
New Mexico House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez, a strong bet for both speaker and governor in the future, clarified it for me at a recent awards dinner. “It’s not so much moving to the center; it is speaking in terms of values that resonate with voters.”
The lesson of Lieberman’s loss should not be lost for the many up-and-coming aspiring politicos looking to lead the state in the future. Among the group—thirty- and forty-something up-and-comers at all levels of government in our fair state—conversations often center around how the next generation will take the reins of New Mexico. Will it be through go-along-to-get-along politics? Will it be by having a noncontroversial voting record to build broad financial and political base? Will it be by fighting for real reform even if it means taking on some of the powerful members of the Democratic Party? Or will it be by tapping into the alienation and discontent felt by the kind of voters who supported Lamont?
Democratic leaders from the growing list of presidential contenders to candidates for City Council have to do a gut check. What is it that we stand for as Democrats? Are we still the party of the working class? If so, why couldn’t we get an increase in the minimum wage in our Democratically controlled State Legislature? Are we still the party of conservation? Then why is it that developers run most New Mexican cities? Are we the party of diplomacy and internationalism? If so, why did so many Democrats line up like lemmings behind the failed Bush war policies?
One big sign that the waters may be changing is the national movement to hold Wal-Mart accountable for its dismal labor practices. A parade of presidential hopefuls, including our own governor, have or will join the national tour to put pressure on Wal-Mart to change its policies of not providing adequate health care and paying its workers substandard wages.
As the political “center” keeps drifting right, Democrats here at home and in Washington will have to decide if they will keep chasing that elusive “middle” or stand up for the core values of the Democratic Party. As they make that decision, they should remember Joe Lieberman. More importantly, they should remember Ned Lamont.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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