The Democrats find their voice against Bush

The amateur Clark and the scold Lieberman falter as the party gets serious about criticizing the administration.

By Sidney Blumenthal
January 30, 2004 12:35AM (UTC)
main article image

For the first time the country is hearing sustained criticism of President Bush -- and though the Democratic presidential primaries have been going less than two weeks, the effect has been immediate. Bush was already rattled and preoccupied with his suddenly full-throated opposition even before the Iowa vote. He scheduled his State of the Union address to follow it by a day. The speech was crafted as a sharply partisan, argumentative reply. Rather than projecting a vision of America as a radiant "city on a hill," he depicted a city in a bunker. It was as though he were countering Franklin Roosevelt's appeal to confidence, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," with nothing but fear itself.

Bush's State of the Union was the most poorly rated in modern times. By the weekend, his approval had fallen below 50 percent in a Newsweek poll and he was three points behind Sen. John Kerry, the new Democratic front-runner.


In New Hampshire, the turnout for the Democratic primary was the greatest in history, reflecting the party's determination to oust Bush. Of especial importance was the enormous influx of independents, whose participation constituted 48 percent of all voters, showing the turn of the moderates. Intensity against Bush has combined with the felt need for an electable candidate. Democrats don't want either/or, political clarity or political skill, but both in one package. Now, in the din, the party is finding its voice. New Hampshire began to sort out the candidates. Men of destiny discovered that the crowds throng for someone else's future. Those who suffer brutally abrupt judgments tell much by their rejection.

Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander in Europe, campaigned as a national redemptive hero, and finished a distant third. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the vice presidential candidate in 2000, ran as rightful pretender, and came in fifth. The Democratic Party (unlike the Republican) has no natural deference to eminence or inheritance. Neither Clark nor Lieberman can meet the price of necessity this year. Clark is the four-star general as political amateur at a moment when the party demands an experienced politician. Lieberman is a scold of cultural conservatism and defender of Bush's foreign policy when the party wants to storm the barricades under an unwavering standard.

Clark insisted on being drafted to run by a committee that had been created for that purpose. He wanted to be seen as Olympian, above politics, embodying the will of a postwar nation, like Grant and Eisenhower, and uniting it through his persona. But Clark lacked their fame to overwhelm, and he had to struggle through a grueling primary contest, a war unlike any he's ever seen, the opposite of a coronation. Fatefully, he decided not to go to Iowa, allowing Kerry to outflank Dean there. The elements that Clark sought to assemble were held by others: Kerry owned electability; Edwards, Southern identity; and Dean, the Washington outsider. A man of parts, Clark was left in pieces.


The general began his New Hampshire campaign with a shot to his foot. Attempting to pull rank, he dismissed Kerry as a mere lieutenant. By his condescension, Clark underscored Kerry's genuine Vietnam War heroism -- and helped make him less the aloof aristocrat. Then, Clark -- who had been fending off charges that, having voted for Nixon and Reagan, he was not a true Democrat -- appeared with Michael Moore, the self-promoting left-wing comedian who is as responsible as anyone for Nader's destructive sectarian campaign that provided the infinitesimal margin in two states that put Bush in the White House. Clark called him "a great American," while Moore grabbed the microphone to call Bush a "deserter," a remark that Clark spent the rest of the New Hampshire campaign trying to deflect.

Lieberman wanted to advance the right wing's culture war within the party, making a career out of picking fights with Hollywood, the music industry, even proposing a law outlawing rave concerts. As an Orthodox Jew, he lent an aura of the ecumenical to the intolerant. He founded a conservative group, Empower America, along with Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, the grand ayatollah of the neoconservatives who was exposed as an addictive gambler who lost millions at the gaming tables in Las Vegas. Lieberman also co-sponsored "faith-based" legislation with conservative Republican Sen. Rick Santorum that gave tax incentives and contracts to churches to perform government services while exempting them from equal opportunity laws.

Lieberman presented his alliances as the only way to uphold decency, family life and "values." He urged that the Democrats reform their evil ways, accept God and only then receive the promise of salvation. This was the essence of his notion of a New Democrat. He never criticized the religious right for its undermining of the Constitution and civil society or for its hateful divisiveness and hypocritical cant. It didn't seem to occur to him that the big tent for which he was barker was Elmer Gantry's.


On the eve of the impeachment trial of President Clinton, Lieberman was the first Democratic senator to denounce him. On the floor of the Senate, at an uncertain political moment, he upheld Ken Starr as a figure of probity and compared Clinton's private consensual acts with "negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture." Al Gore chose him as his running mate partly because of this moralistic posturing. His smug cultural conservatism repelled alienated younger voters and sent them in Ralph Nader's direction. Lieberman served almost as a genial sidekick to Dick (Mr. Lynne) Cheney in their debate, and during the Florida contest he publicly conceded, without ever consulting anyone, the Republicans' fraudulent overseas ballots (the so-called Thanksgiving stuffing), which by itself cost Gore the presidency -- a most ingratiating gesture. On election night in New Hampshire, Lieberman called Kerry "out of the mainstream" and for old time's sake attacked "the entertainment industry."

With the elimination of the quasi-neoconservative and the rookie, the remaining candidates' messages, with relatively minor variations, are the same in almost every respect. Dean can claim he opposed the Iraq war from the start, but they all lash Bush now on his falsehoods and abuse of intelligence to justify it. Among Democrats, the issue is no longer salient in defining one candidate against another. The nuance of difference means there are no irreparable internal divisions. For the next two months, though the result appears foreordained, the Democratic road show will barnstorm the country from coast to coast against Bush, more symphony than cacophony.

Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

MORE FROM Sidney Blumenthal

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Joe Lieberman