Salon Radio: Lanny Davis on Accountability Now and primary challenges

The former Clinton aide and close Lieberman ally defends his critique of primary challenges as a means to keep incumbents accountable.

Published March 3, 2009 5:11PM (EST)

[updated below - Update II (w/transcript)]

Last week's formal launch of Accountability Now -- which grew out of last year's anger among liberal blogs, civil libertarians and libertarians over the Democratic Congress' lobbyist-driven gift of retroactive immunity to the lawbreaking telecom industry -- generated substantial amounts of media coverage (NYTWashPost, AP, CNN, ABC News, Huffington Post, MSNBC, USA Today, capped of by an end-of-the-day prominent Drudge link to the NYT article).  Some of the reports (such as the HuffPost and Post articles) were quite accurate, while others (particularly the NYT article) relied on the misleading platitude that the group and the primary challenges it intends to promote are designed to push the Democratic Party "to the left" and purge it of so-called "centrists."

In fact, as is true of many contemporary political issues, Accountability Now has nothing to do with these "left/right" clichés.  It has nothing to do with trying to "purge" the ideologically impure.  Is corrupt incumbent allegiance to lobbyists and a narrow class of corporate interests liberal or conservative?  Is the attack on the Constitution -- long opposed by many on both the Left and non-Bush-following Right, and supported by key leaders in both parties -- "left" or "right"?  Was support for the oversight-free bailout liberal or conservative?  Where a member of Congress is wildly out of step with the voters in their district because they never face any challenges from within their own party, is that lack of accountability attributable to political ideology, and does rejuvenating accountability have anything to do with pushing a party further to the left or right?

Lanny Davis -- former Special Counsel to Bill Clinton and a close personal friend and ally of Joe Lieberman -- was one who hauled out the tired ideological platitudes in attacking Accountability Now, in a column he wrote for The Washington Times this weekend.  Using the NYT's description of Accountability Now's mission, Davis accused the group of being devoted to "the ideological cleansing of the Democratic Party - eliminating anyone who doesn't always meet their definition of liberalism on every issue."

I intended to write about Davis' column yesterday, but then I remembered my Marc-Ambinder-inspired pledge to resume efforts to invite onto Salon Radio those with whom I disagreed, and thus invited Davis onto the show.  To my surprise, and to his credit, he accepted, despite knowing that we obviously disagreed rather strenuously -- not just about this issue, but about many.

I purposely wanted this discussion to be as calm and civil as possible because, of all the political arguments that are made, the notion that there is something illegitimate about primary challenges has always been one of the most baffling to me, and I really wanted to hear the reasoning behind it.  As I pointed out to Davis, the U.S. has incumbent re-election rates that rival those of the Politburo in the Leonid Brezhnev era.  As the Center for Responsive Politics put it:  "Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection."

In light of that, what rational person would ever think that it's a bad thing to force incumbent members of Congress to have to justify their actions to voters, compete within their own party over conflicting ideas, and maximize the instruments available to citizens to keep their representatives accountable?  Supporting primary challenges against incumbents who enable policies that you think are bad and harmful is about the purest expression of democracy there can be.  And yet, so many people have become convinced that primary challenges are inherently illegitimate, and that what is "anti-democratic" is not the 97% re-election rates and the huge institutional advantages incumbents possess, but rather, attempts to expand the democratic process and the range of acceptable ideas by fostering intra-party debates and forcing incumbents to have to go before voters to explain what they've done.

Whenever people advance the painfully Orwellian claim that primary challenges (i.e., democratic elections) are like "Stalinist purges," I always envision two random, extremely corrupt political incumbents sitting around fantasizing about their ultimate wish list.  One of them says:

Imagine if we could actually manage to convince people that there's something inherently wrong about challenging our power and supporting candidates to run against us.  Wouldn't it be so funny if we could somehow get people to walk around reciting the view that it amounts to an undemocratic "Stalinist purge" for us incumbents to be targeted for defeat in primary elections by citizens who disagree with us and agree more with our challenger?

The other incumbent would respond:  "That's too unrealistic even to fantasize about -- how could citizens ever become convinced that elections are 'undemocratic' or 'Stalinist' -- but yeah, that would be hilarious if we could get people to think that way, wouldn't it?"  Yet that's exactly the objection that is commonly heard if one suggests that primary challenges -- whereby voters in a district decide in an election who they want to represent their party -- are an important tool for keeping elected officials accountable:  it's "undemocratic ideological cleansing"!

I thought the discussion with Davis was actually productive, as it became apparent that the range of disagreement was quite narrow -- far narrower, at least, than it appeared from just his column.  Indeed, much of what he said ended up being, in effect if not intent, an endorsement of the key aims and methods of Accountability Now (he even, rather amazingly, acknowledged that the primary challenge mounted against Joe Lieberman was a legitimate use of primaries).  The discussion was roughly 15 minutes and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below.  A transcript will be posted shortly.


UPDATE:  The one claim from Davis that I just can't allow to go unrebutted is that Lieberman is a "civil liberties libertarian" who votes with Democrats on most key issues besides Iraq.  See here.


UPDATE II:  The transcript is here.

To listen to this interview, click PLAY on the recorder below (background on this discussion is here):

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Lanny Davis, who is the former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, currently a Washington lawyer, and he's also the author of a column that appeared over the weekend in The Washington Times that critiqued Accountability Now and the primary project of that new group, at least as the project was described by The New York Times. Lanny, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Lanny Davis: Thanks for allowing me to talk to you, Glenn.

GG: My pleasure. So, I want to begin by just stating what I think is the premise of primary challenges in general and Accountability Now specifically, and let me know where, if any, the source of disagreement is that you have with the premise of the project.

If you look at re-election rates for incumbents in Congress in the United States over the last 10 years, it really rivals the re-election rate for the Politburo in the Leonid Brezhnev era. It's as rare to see an American incumbent defeated as it is almost any other event in politics, especially in a primary challenge. And so the argument that people who advocate primary challenges typically make is that it is better for democracy if incumbents have to justify their positions to voters more rather than less, and to convince voters that they ought to think about [whether incumbents] ought to go back to Washington, and primary challenges are simply the ultimate exercise in democracy to allow that competition of ideas.

You disagree with that in principle, that primary challenges are an important exercise of democracy?

LD: No, I completely agree in many respects for the need for primary challenges. The announced purpose of Accountability Now in the selection of who should be [a target of a primary challenge] is what I disagreed with, not the fact of the need to have primaries to keep incumbents accountable if they vary from their constituents or if they vary from their campaign promises.

GG: We'll talk about that in a second. I think The New York Times actually got very wrong what the criteria is for when these primary challenges would be supported by Accountability Now, but let's set that aside for a moment.

In what regard, or in what context could primary challenges ever be something that you would oppose as a practice? In other words, you say, well, there are certain purposes with which these primary challenges might be mounted that you would have a problem with. Why would the primary challenges ever be something that anybody ought to have a problem with, given that it just leaves it up to the voters to decide who they want to be represented by?

LD: No, as I said, to repeat, I think primaries are a good thing, and I think it's important for incumbents to know that they might be primaried if they lose touch with their constituents and I have no disagreement with that principle.

GG: So, what is your objection, then, to, or your concern about, what you understand Accountability Now to be doing?

LD: Well, you made a reference to the misreporting or the not complete reporting, so all I can depend on is The New York Times report.

GG: Right.

LD: At the very end of my piece I gave credit -- I used the word credit -- to Accountability Now if part of its purpose is to remind Democrats that we're Democrats because of a liberal democratic position in our party, and there is a difference between us and Republicans. I consider myself to be a liberal democrat, I'm not afraid to use the word, L for liberal -- and I'd like to take up with you a little bit later how you characterize me -- but in the case of a Democrat who is voting with Republicans on issues that matter to me, I would support a primary opponent against that Democratic incumbent.

GG: So, what would be examples of Democrats supporting Republican positions on issue that are important enough that you think [primary challenges] are warranted?

LD: And this is very subjective, and I would allow each person to answer your question differently, because each person's priorities, values, issues, what would cause them to oppose an incumbent Democrat, and we need as many centrists or even conservative Democrats as we can who are needed to support President Obama. I would subjectively have to select or pick my battles on something that I considered to be a fundamental matter of conscience, as opposed to something where I would allow disagreement on a particular issue.

So, for example, if my Congressman were a racist, and were voting for segregationist policies, I would support a primary. I think on choice, if my Congressman were pro-life, I would support a primary. On gay rights, if my Congressman opposed at least civil equality for gay couples -- I happen to favor legalized marriage, but I think on that there is a lot of debate among progressives who are at least...some progressives don't support gay marriage. I do support legalized gay marriage, but if I had a Congressman that didn't even support civil union, or did not support strong anti-discrimination laws against gays, I would support a primary challenge.

So, I've given you three examples. I would also take into account whether that particular Congressman has helped the Democratic Party in all other ways, for example, in voting with Democrats a large percentage of the time, supporting President Obama when we needed the 60th vote. I would take pragmatic considerations into account. But, at least matters of conscience, and I've given you two or three of them, I would definitely support a primary challenge if my Congressman, who, as a Democrat I would expect to be pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-discrimination, I would support a challenge if he turned against...

GG: So, as you began by acknowledging different people can legitimately draw those lines or choose their issues differently where their lines get crossed, as someone might say, I expect this Democrat to oppose optional wars; if they support the Iraq War or they support warrantless eavesdropping, or Guantanamo or torture, whatever the issues are, opposing bankruptcy reform -- maybe those are the lines that get crossed. In those instances it could be legitimate for primary challenges to be mounted.

And so what I don't understand, I just want to read this one paragraph from your piece, you say:

On the other side are certain bloggers and groups who call themselves liberal, but whose objectives, as stated to the Times, seem to be the ideological cleansing of the Democratic Party, eliminating anyone who doesn't always meet their definition of liberalism on every issue.

LD: Correct.

GG: Now, let's assume the issue here isn't enforcing orthodoxy on every issue -- and I think you know that bloggers have supported, liberal bloggers have supported a wide range of candidates like Jon Tester and Jim Webb and Mark Begich and all sorts of of people based on their geography. But let's assume that there is a handful of issues, three or four or five issues, that are extremely important to liberal bloggers, whether it's war or civil liberties or whatever, and primaries are mounted based on those issues. In other words, targeting people who support policies that bloggers or Accountability Now thinks are harmful to the country.

Is that ideological cleansing, or is that more like the kind of primary approach that you think is legitimate that you reserve for yourself?

LD: Well, you're making a fair point about characterizations... which ideological cleansing is a characterization that always lead to this interpretation because it's not factual, it's characterizing facts. So, what I was referring to in the expressing 'ideological cleansing' came out of the New York Times story, where both the words centrists and blue dog Democrats were referenced as, quote, "targets" of Accountability Now.

I think it's a fair characterization, but I'm certainly willing to hear people disagree with the characterization which often happens when you try to characterize. I think it's a fair characterization to say that if Accountability Now's purpose, and the generalization was reported in The New York Times to challenge blue dog Democrats and quote "centrists," to me, that goes a step too far.

It gets off of specific issues of conscience, and goes into herding the Democratic Party's ability nationally to effectuate change that Barack Obama needs moderate, centrist, blue dog fiscally-conservative democrats, certainly in the United States Senate, and in the House of Representatives, as I noted in my column, virtually all of the blue dogs supported President Obama on the stimulus package, but in The New York Times not one sentence...

GG: I think eleven House members, all of whom were blue dogs except for one, opposed the stimulus packages.

LD: I said 'virtually' all in my piece, maybe eleven is less than or more than 'virtually' but I did note there were some. But a majority of the blue dogs supported President Obama.

Now, had someone from Accountability Now, such as yourself, said, we want to make it clear that we are going to be careful in who we target, that just because you're a fiscal conservative and you're called a blue dog doesn't mean you're going to be challenged because we appreciate the fact that the blue dogs, a majority of them, supported President Obama. Now I'm hearing you, as a spokesman, in the New York Times story, able to differentiate, rather than a generalized characterization of both blue dogs or centrists, which don't have real factual meaning to me, so I think that's what I was taking a different opinion than what I read in The New York Times.

GG: There was a primary challenge, one of the really most effective ones in the last I think couple of decades, which is where various American Jewish groups targeted Cynthia McKinney, the Democratic incumbent from Georgia, and supported her opponent in a primary challenge successfully, based on their opposition to her views on Israel.

Did you consider that a matter of ideological cleansing or was it an appropriate exercise of democracy to support that primary challenge?

LD: Well, again -- just so you're not putting words into my mouth that I know you're not intending to do that, Glenn -- my ideological cleansing expression was a reference to what was said in The New York Times about centrists and blue dog Democrats, specifically ...

GG: No, I understand.

LD: that characterization, so on Cynthia McKinney, as a matter of conscience, Ms. McKinney made, not anti-Israel -- I think lots of people can be anti-Israel policy without being anti-Semitic. I often have that argument, I'm very pro-Israel -- but I hate when members of the Jewish community don't make the distinction between disagreeing with Israel on policy and accusing people of being anti-Semitic.

Ms. McKinney made anti-Semitic comments, generalized about Jews, and that was offensive to my conscience. I would have supported a primary against her. To use a more difficult example, for me, but one which I think people who have been critics of me forget, is that my good friend, one of my best friends in the world, godfather of my son 39 years ago, is Joe Lieberman --

GG: I don't think anyone's forgotten that.

LD: I opposed strongly Joe Lieberman's position on the war. Indeed, I was against the authorization in the war resolution that my friend Hillary Clinton, who I worked so hard for president supported. Yet, during the Ned Lamont primary, whenever I had the opportunity, and I have sometimes been misquoted, or maybe I didn't speak too clearly, I always respected people who decided to primary Joe Lieberman on the war. That, to me, was a understandable and important expression by Democrats opposing the war, to challenge to Joe Lieberman's position to a primary. And I will always try to say that I respected people who were working for Ned Lamont opposing Joe Lieberman on the war.

What I didn't respect, and what I was very critical of, was the misrepresentation of his liberal voting record on virtually -- I'll use that word again -- virtually every major issue that defines liberalism, Joe Lieberman's voting record was liberal. Indeed, more liberal than Ned Lamont, who was a member of a restricted country club before he started to run, and when he was asked about why he dropped out, he said, well, I got out because I started to run for the Senate.

GG: But to avoid relitigating the Lamont-Lieberman -- I think it's common when you support a campaign pretty passionately, especially when it's your friend running, I don't think it's just you. I think all of us do this, to feel like the arguments made by the other side are unfair. I know Lamont supporters feel the same way about the Lieberman campaign.

But to stick to the point for a minute, that, the support of Lamont from outside groups, albeit one that you didn't agree with on the merits because you thought Lieberman should have been re-elected, but you thought that was a legitimate exercise of democracy, because they were doing it primarily, though not exclusively, because of his support for the war?

LD: Well, I say yes because I respect people who choose as a matter of conscience whatever issue they choose, I have to respect that. For me, the war was an extremely important issue to me. I was extremely concerned about going into Iraq, yet I was able to, if I can use the word, forgive or allow disagreement, and still support Joe Lieberman because of his overall voting record.

No matter how good of friends we were, if Joe Lieberman were pro-life, anti-gay rights and wasn't a strong civil rights libertarian, and therefor in my judgment hadn't voted with the Democrats perhaps more than 90% of the time as a senator, I would not have supported Joe Lieberman.

GG: Right. Let me ask you -- last question -- about your column, and it actually relates to Senator Lieberman. You made the argument in your column that people who opposed Barack Obama's decision and the decision of the Democrats to let Lieberman continue in his position as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee have essentially been proven wrong, and I think you identified Rachel Maddow and a couple other people who argue that he should have been removed, they've been proven wrong because Lieberman played an important role in supporting Obama's stimulus package and even in working to keep the necessary Republicans on board, and enabled that package to pass, and you said that they ought to admit that they were wrong, those who argued for his removal.

Do you actually think that had Lieberman been removed as the Homeland Security chairman, that he would have ended up opposing legislation that he believed was necessary and beneficial for the country like the stimulus package out of spite? Do you actually think that that would have affected his decision about whether or not to support the stimulus package?

LD: No, I don't. I think Joe Lieberman has a great heart and a great liberal record for all the years I've known him, and I think no matter how angry and upset he might have been, he would have voted the right way on the stimulus package.

I'm not sure he would have been as motivated to work as hard as he did with Susan Collins and Olympia Snow and Arlen Specter to keep that coalition together, but I actually inwardly believe he would have. My point about -- and I only mentioned Rachel Maddow, I also mentioned how much admire her progressive views on issues, so I didn't just criticize her, I added my admiration about her views on the issues -- I thought she was particularly angry and over-the-top in her references to picking Lieberman for senate caucus.

I thought it sounded and smacked of revenge, of anger. At one point she misrepresented his record in the senate campaign, about which I called the executive producer and the next night she kind of begrudgingly at the end of her show corrected herself. So, that was my point about being vindicated, is that Barack Obama did a very unusual thing when he communicated his views to the senate caucus. He actually took a risk because it's really none of his business what the Senate does -- it's a separation of powers issue.

GG: Right.

LD: I really worried about, since when did the President tell senators who should be in their caucus? But he had this larger vision, and you're talking to someone, Glenn, I'm sure you know who didn't support Barack Obama when he ran for nomination and it took me a while to see what a truly great man with a vision of a new type of politics that I mentioned in my column, just in his team of rivals.

And I have to say, the way that Abraham Lincoln forgave his enemies, in fact right before his death, his recommendation for treating people who led the Confederacy was with malice towards none and charity towards all -- that's the spirit which Barack Obama represents, which I thought Rachel Maddow in her tone, in her rhetoric, was unbecoming and unfair. So, as to what Joe actually would have done, you're asking me a very perceptive question, in fact, Joe Lieberman the credit he deserves; I think he would have voted his conscience.

GG: Okay, well, I appreciate this conversation. I think it was illuminating. I don't actually think the differences between Accountability Now and yourself with regard to primary challenges are nearly as stark as your column suggested, which I appreciate was based on -- quite fairly so -- on what The New York Times described as what the organization's goals are, rather than in fact what they are.

I think it has a lot more to do with incumbents in Congress who are out of step with their district, and especially the party in their district, and there's a huge gap between what they do in Washington and what their supporters in the district want them to do, and there's a lack of accountability that way. Or people who listen to lobbyists in Washington and serve narrow interests instead of the interests of their constituents and then in some cases, the small minority where people cross the kind of lines that you acknowledge are appropriate to draw, even necessary, I think in politics when it's a matter of principle. But it's not just a blunderbuss effort to extinguish anyone who has the word blue dog or centrist before their name, but I think that will be evident as the organization begins to...

LD: First of all, repeat my thank you, having a read a few of the things that you've written about me, I was surprised that you were willing to hear me out, and I appreciate the fact that you did.

And secondly, I hope that, in the course of this conversation, as you've heard my views on specific issues that are a matter of record that I say on television, I don't just whisper them, that I consider myself a liberal on almost every issue I can think of, and therefore I hope someday the great Glenn Greenwald of Salon will take back that expression "neo-conservative," which I think is not accurate.

GG: Alright. Very good. I appreciate it, Lanny, and we'll definitely talk again.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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