On the eve of the brief caucus and primary season that will probably determine the two major-party presidential nominations by mid-February at the latest, most members of Congress are playing their cards close to their vests. The reason is there's a lot to be lost in backing the wrong horse.
Of the few congressional endorsements in this campaign, none is as interesting as the decision of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the self-styled Independent Democrat from Connecticut, to back Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona for president.
The move was just the latest twist in a remarkable journey from the core of the Democrat base to the political no man's land in which Lieberman currently finds himself. But the significance of this event is not so much about the senator personally as much as it represents a sea change in American party politics. Lieberman's flight from the fold makes it official that the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats have really left the party.
Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983), the six-term U.S. senator from Washington state, was the living symbol of a set of beliefs that were once at the heart of the Democratic Party. He was a traditional liberal on social issues and a devoted friend of the labor movement.
However, Jackson is best remembered for his foreign-policy stands. Though unremarkable during his first decades in Congress, he remained a determined Cold Warrior into the 1970s and 1980s, when many, if not most, of his party colleagues had abandoned this point of view.
Among Jews and friends of Israel, Jackson's memory is also cherished for his passionate advocacy of freedom for Soviet Jewry. The Jackson-Vanik law — linking freedom of emigration from the former Soviet Union to trade — was a landmark achievement for a movement that eventually opened the gates of freedom and helped topple Communism's evil empire.
A Fall From Grace
But today, Jackson's combination of domestic liberalism with foreign-policy hawkishness is as dead as the Dodo bird. Anyone seeking to dispute this need only look to Lieberman and his fall from Democratic grace.
Seven years ago, in one of the closest and most bitterly contested elections in the history of the republic, Lieberman just missed out on his historic chance to take the oath of office as the first Jewish vice president of the United States when Florida's electoral votes went to George W. Bush instead of Al Gore.
One can only wonder what Joe Lieberman would be doing today had a few hundred befuddled elderly Jews in Palm Beach not been confused by the infamous "butterfly" ballot, and voted for the Gore-Lieberman ticket instead of the independent anti-Semite Pat Buchanan.
Would he be in Iowa and New Hampshire as the incumbent vice president running for president with a better chance than he had in his abortive 2004 bid for the White House?
We'll never know the answer to that question, or what he and Gore would have done differently from Bush-Cheney in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, had they been the ones rushed to "secure locations."
Instead, Lieberman found himself drifting out of the Democratic mainstream over his support for the war in Iraq. In 2006, the Democratic icon was defeated for renomination by Connecticut Democrats; they chose a political neophyte whose only credential was a pledge to oppose the war.
Lieberman's primary defeat was but a temporary setback. Though spurned by the party to which he'd devoted his entire adult life, the senator ran as an independent in the November election and cruised to victory. But the key to that comeback was that the Republicans had put up a token candidate. Most GOP voters crossed over and voted for Lieberman, as indeed many had done since his first Senate victory in 1988, when he defeated the unpopularly liberal incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker.
Lieberman chose to caucus with his Democratic colleagues, many of whom had endorsed his opponent, and became the crucial 51st vote that returned them to the majority for the first time since 1994. But rather than being able to use his leverage to exert some influence over the party, he has found himself more isolated than ever.
As a result, Lieberman chose to endorse McCain — the one figure in either party who had consistently backed the war, even when it was most unpopular. For a man who has always been as partisan a Democrat as any, this was quite a step. But it signified Lieberman's belief that the war on Islamist terror and the willingness of the United States to continue fighting it in Iraq and, if necessary, elsewhere, was more important than any party.
Who Would Follow?
While the endorsement is a positive development for McCain as he attempts to resurrect his candidacy, the truth is that Lieberman brings few votes with him. After all, if he could not get many Democrats or independents to vote for him for president when he was the only foreign-policy hawk in the field in 2004, how many would follow him now?
When asked about how Democrats have come to think about him, the genial Lieberman said that they have come to view him as the party's "eccentric uncle." But the comments from the leftist blogosphere were far worse than that.
At places like Huffingtonpost.com and other sites where the MoveOn.org crowd congregate, the comments range from the scatological to the purely anti-Semitic. At such places, hard-core anti-Bush and anti-war sentiments are the coin of the realm, and hostility to Israel and its perceived influence on American foreign policy is rampant. The notion of a Democratic Party that aggressively defends America's interests abroad as vigorously as it fights for liberal causes at home is treated as an absurdity in this quarter.
Even a bastion of Jewish liberalism, such as the editorial page of the Forward, had to admit that the reaction to Lieberman was more "than the familiar fringe bigotry that we're accustomed to tut-tutting and then ignoring. This is something new and alarming."
Such "anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering" was, it said, indicative of "a larger shift in the culture."
They are right, although I'd suggest that this shift, as significant as it might be, has yet to penetrate the mainstream right in this country, where support for a hawkish approach to the Middle East, and especially for Israel, remains strong.
We should not jump to the conclusion — as some Republicans would have us do — that this means that the Democratic Party is now the property of the Jimmy Carters of the world — though it's true that they are not quite as insignificant as the Israel-haters (such as Buchanan) are in the GOP. All of the major Democratic candidates back Israel and use harsh rhetoric concerning Iran, though whether their words — or those of their Republican counterparts — will be translated into policy is an open question.
But Lieberman was the last of a particular kind of principled Democrat still in captivity. American politics has changed, and the country is worse off for it. Let there be no doubt about it: The Scoop Jackson wing of the party is now officially dead.
Contact Jonathan S. Tobin via e-mail at [email protected] com.