Rick Perlstein: How Joe Lieberman Could Ruin the Democrats' Chances





Rick Perlstein, writing in the Village Voice (Oct. 27, 2003):

[I]t's not too early to predict that if the Democrats lose the presidential election next November, Lieberman will be the one to blame. That will certainly be so if he ends up becoming the nominee—in which case the Democratic Party will be left without an activist base.... Perversely, it might even be worse for the Democratic Party if he fails.

... as his star fades, he'll have only one viable strategy left, a manic, all-or-nothing strategy: trying to convince Democrats that the front-runner must be dumped altogether, using the dark arts of opposition research, trying to dig up something purportedly embarrassing from the front-runner's past that the jubilant Republicans might even have missed if left to their own devices....

The year was 1987, an October much like this one, with a crowded Democratic field usefully united on many, if not most, issues, but for a single irritant: Al Gore, who, determined to distinguish himself from the field by a supposedly sage and mature moderate conservatism, stepped up to the microphone at the National Press Club and read his fellow Democratic candidates clear out of the United States of America. "The politics of retreat, complacency, and doubt may appeal to others," he said, "but it will not do for me or for my country." He had already bragged in a Des Moines debate about his support for the Reagan administration's position on the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, even on chemical weapons, accusing his opponents of being "against every weapons system that is suggested"; at the next forum, he lectured his fellows on the imperative of invading Grenada and supporting the Contras. For that, some Democratic insiders were whispering, was just what it would take to be electable.

And even though the message hardly took with voters—party conservatives had scheduled a cluster of Southern primaries early in 1988 specifically to favor a candidate like Gore, but the dead-fish Tennesseean still got skunked on "Super Tuesday" by the most liberal candidate, Jesse Jackson—Gore stuck around just long enough to run a vicious campaign in the late-inning New York primary, in which he grilled front-runner Michael Dukakis for his apparent support of "weekend passes for convicted criminals."

In Washington, opposition researchers for the Republican front-runner, George Herbert Walker Bush, were taking notes.

"I thought to myself, 'This is incredible,' " Bush staffer Jim Pinkerton recalled of Gore's tarring the Massachusetts prisoner furlough program as if it were the idea of Michael Dukakis, when in actuality the program had been initiated by the Republican governor who preceded him. "It totally fell into our lap." Dukakis emerged from the convention that nominated him with a 17-point lead. Then Gore's million-dollar lines, so self-consciously crafted to make himself "electable," began finding their way into George H.W. Bush's mouth. Bush was able to successfully paint Dukakis as a dangerous radical. Al Gore had provided the palette—his smears having had nearly a year to sink into the American psyche.

Think about that next time you're watching one of the Democratic debates and hear Joe Lieberman say, as he did at one, that if Vermont's former governor won the presidential election, "the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression." Or say, as Lieberman did at his own National Press Club policy address this year, that his opponents disastrously "prefer the old, big-government solutions to our problems," even though "with record deficits, a stalled economy, and Social Security in danger, we can't afford that."


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