But one day, Joe Lieberman's warnings in this campaign will look prophetic. And the principles he has espoused will once again guide the Democratic Party. It will be the work of this magazine, to whatever small degree possible, to hasten that day.
[T]he anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman's sins. It's a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent.
A few weeks ago, Senator Dianne Feinstein announced that she and other Senate Democrats harbored reservations about President Obama's plans to overhaul the health care system. . . . The reaction from the left was swift and, by the standards of such things, furious. Which is to say, not very furious. . . .
I have a suggestion for something that would be productive: run a primary challenge against her. . . . The possibility of a primary challenge could [also] balance out [Sen. Evan] Bayh's incentives, thus aligning them more with those of the national party. . . . Primary electorates consist of a small, highly partisan subset of the electorate, and the prospect of submitting themselves to a partisan loyalty contest terrifies centrists like Bayh.
But if health care reform fails, liberals need to understand who to blame and how to fix it. They need to start knocking off Democrats like Conrad and Joe Lieberman, who seem to be trying to kill health care reform, even if this temporarily costs the Democrats some seats. . . . If health care reform can't pass now, then a filibuster-proof Democratic majority isn't worth having. At that point you have to consider blowing up the party and waiting a decade or two to rebuild a new one that's able to address the country's actual needs.
My, what a rapid and total reversal -- one effectuated without the slightest acknowledgment that it even occurred. But that's just the accountability-free nature of Beltway punditry. There's a more important point highlighted here: namely, it is a sign of how dysfunctional the Democratic Party is -- and how meaningless is their glorious super-majority -- that even The New Republic, which long prided itself on safeguarding the Party from nefarious left-wing influences, is now calling for "centrist" Democratic Senators (even including Joe Lieberman) to be thrown out of office by means of primary challenges (I believe that was once called a "purity purge"), even if doing so results in a loss of Democratic seats. Chait's rationale is that allowing "centrist" dominance within the party means that the same corporate interests (rather than the interests of constituents) and the same political agenda end up being served regardless of which party is in control, meaning that -- as he put it -- even "a filibuster-proof Democratic majority isn't worth having" because nothing meaningful changes. You don't say.
That, of course, was exactly the motivating premise of those who sought to remove Joe Lieberman from the Senate in 2006 -- the people Chait demonized back then as "left-wing fanatics" who "refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent." That was also the animating principle behind the founding last year of Accountability Now, largely designed to recruit and enable meaningful primary challenges against corrupt, unaccountable, and worthless corporate-serving incumbents. As I wrote at the time in explaining the rationale for that project, after enumerating all of the radical Bush policies eagerly supported by Democrats:
As the 2006 election and these subsequent events conclusively demonstrate, mindlessly supporting and electing more Democrats for its own sake doesn't solve or even mitigate anything. Grounded in the premise that the Democrats are going to control both houses of Congress for the foreseeable future -- a premise virtually nobody disputes -- the primary objective has to be to alter the behavior of those who control the Congress.
Increasing the Democrats' margin of control doesn't achieve that goal. It does the opposite. Conveying to Democrats that you will support all of them no matter what they do, no matter how egregiously they trample on your values, only ensures that they will ignore your political priorities and values even more. Working to expand the margin of control Steny Hoyer, Rahm Emanuel and Harry Reid already enjoy -- further entrenching them in power -- only ensures that they will be less responsive and accountable. Only by attaching a serious price to their enabling of these extremist, destructive policies will their behavior change. If they are rewarded with greater control and greater comfort for doing what they've been doing, then it's just guaranteed that they'll continue to do the same thing. Only if they suffer losses and have their power threatened from this behavior will the behavior change.
And as part of a discussion I had with Lanny Davis -- who, echoing the 2006 version of Chait, had accused Accountability Now in The Washington Times of seeking the "ideological cleansing of the Democratic Party" -- I wrote:
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.
And as I noted in my June, 2008 article entitled "Let's Give Blue Dogs the Boot," it is blind support for the likes of Chris Carney, Steny Hoyer, and various other corporate-owned Blue Dogs that made the Democratic Party key enablers of the ongoing Iraq War, telecom immunity, warrantless eavesdropping, and virtually every other piece of legislation demanded by the corporate interests that own both parties in Congress.
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While it's lovely that The New Republic has now joined that movement and decided that corporate-owned "centrists" need to be purged from the Party, Chait is laboring under complete blindness about the reasons these problems have arisen. Chait accuses me, Dan Froomkin and "liberals" generally of "confusion" because we believe that the Obama White House bears some of the blame in the dominance of corporate interests generally and in the health care battle specifically. Chait echoes the facially absurd excuse of the most hardened Obama loyalists everywhere: namely, that Obama, Rahm Emanuel and friends are just helpless, impotent observers who wield no influence over the health care debate and can do nothing but sit back and hope and pray that the Senate will pass a good, progressive health care reform bill free of excessive servitude to the health care and drug industries. If the Congress refuses to, well that's obviously not Obama's fault -- a President isn't in the Congress and can't really influence what it does, so this excuse-making goes.
For the moment, leave aside all the evidence to the contrary: that, as Chait's colleague Jonathan Cohn detailed, the Obama White House secretly entered into a deal with the drug industry not to negotiate for lower prices; that Obama has repeatedly sought to empower the Baucus-dominated Senate Finance Committee at the expense of more progressive committees; that the White House aggressively threatens, berates, and cajoles House progressives who impede the President's agenda but hasn't done anything against Blue Dogs; that the strategy of the White House from the start has been to ensure that the health care and drug industries are pleased so that they continue to use their ample largesse to fund the Democrats rather than get behind a GOP takeover in 2010; and that Emanuel built his career and power base by controlling the Congress through the expansion of the Blue Dogs and other "centrist" and "conservative" members and by pleasing corporate donors, thus rendering the image of him as a helpless, passive bystander in the health care debate transparent fiction. Even Dick Durbin -- the Senate's number two Democrat -- acknowledges that, even with a huge Democratic majority, the banking industry "frankly owns" the Congress.
More important than all of that is the fact that there is one principal reason that Blue Dogs and "centrists" exert such dominance within the Party: because the Party leadership, led by the Obama White House, wants it that way and works hard to ensure it continues. While Chait seems to envision himself as the pioneering inventor of the primary challenge strategy (something he first articulated six weeks ago), Accountability Now has actually been working continuously for the last year on recruiting credible primary challengers and building an infrastructure to support those challenges -- all in order to unseat the unresponsive, corrupt and corporate-owned incumbents who ensure that the same factions control government no matter which party is in control. But the principal barrier to those efforts has been the accurate perception that the White House and President -- along with key party institutions such as the DCCC -- will use their vast resources to keep Blue Dogs and "centrists" in office and crush any efforts from within the party to unseat them.
It's hard to overstate how many promising potential primary challengers with whom we've spoken -- highly energized and impressive members of City Councils or County Commissions or state legislatures or just private citizens -- who are eager to run against their corporate-owned Democratic Congressional incumbent but are deterred by one primary fear: that Obama and the Party infrastructure will undercut their efforts by actively supporting the Blue Dog incumbent. That fear is particularly pronounced for potential African-American challengers in districts where the corporate-serving "centrist" incumbent is wildly out of step with the interests and views of the typical (and sometimes overwhelmingly African-American) Democratic voter. Such potential challengers anticipate that Obama will intervene on behalf of the Blue Dog against the progressive challenger -- as he's done before -- and sabotage not only their primary challenge but perhaps their future viability as a candidate in their community and district.
That's what makes Chait's insistence that the Obama White House is just an innocent, impotent bystander in all of this so painfully naive and wrong (Obama says he wants a public option, so doesn't that settle it?, asks Chait, vacantly batting his eyes with child-like trust and innocence). When the White House genuinely wants a bill to pass -- rather than paying irrelevant lip service to it -- they know how to apply pressure on the defiant members of Congress:
The White House is playing hardball with Democrats who intend to vote against the supplemental war spending bill, threatening freshmen who oppose it that they won't get help with reelection and will be cut off from the White House, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said Friday.
"We're not going to help you. You'll never hear from us again," Woolsey said the White House is telling freshmen.
Rahm Emanuel, Tom Delay, and the Bush/Cheney White House have left no doubt that where there's a will to influence the actions of Senators and House members in one's own party, there's a way. But the Obama White House has done nothing in the way of attempting to change the behavior of the supposedly obstructionist Blue Dogs and centrists whom Obama-defenders are eager to blame for the health care standstill. In fact, they've done the opposite: Emanuel has repeatedly leapt to their defense and attacked progressives who sought to influence or otherwise put pressure on them to change behavior. White House threats that "you'll never hear from us again" are issued to defiant progressives only. Not only are such threats never issued to "centrists" and Blue Dogs who are supposedly impeding the President's health care agenda, but the White House does everything it can to protect those ostensible obstructionists and further entrench them in power. Isn't all of this fairly strong evidence that the White House knew, accepted and likely even desired from the start that -- despite the President's public assurances to progressives -- the "public option," understandably despised by the insurance industry, would be dropped from bill?
Nobody suggests that the President could easily or single-handedly change the behavior of Kent Conrad or Mike Ross. But there are certainly things -- effective things -- he could do to try, including making it more difficult for those politicians to stay in office, exactly as they threaten to do with defiant progressives. But they don't do that. They do the opposite. The reason that Blue Dogs and "centrists" exert such control in the Democratic Party and are able to ensure the Party remains beholden to corporate interests is because that's how Party leaders want it. That's how the Democratic Party has been built and it's how they continue to maintain their power.
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It's certainly true that the faces of the Republican Party (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Bill Kristol, James Dobson) are significantly more warped and repellent than the standard Democrat, but the central fact in American political life is that the same narrow factions continue to control our political process regardless of which party is in control (note this recently leaked memo from GE executives emphasizing that "the intersection between GE's interests and government action is clearer than ever" and thus urging that all GE resources continue to be devoted to ensuring the enactment of favorable legislation, such as the Democratic Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill, something accomplished by flooding both parties equally with corporate largesse).
All of this hasn't happened despite the best efforts of the Obama White House to battle against it. To the contrary, Obama himself has been a major beneficiary of this process -- helping Democrats to be the leading recipient of corporate money -- and key Obama allies like Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer have built their power bases through servitude to corporate interests. The very idea that Obama is valiantly struggling to cleanse the party of its corporate and centrist dominance, yet is just haplessly and helplessly unable to do so, is ludicrous beyond words.
It's possible to reasonably defend those actions as a necessary, pragmatic and prudent strategy for keeping Republicans out of power. But it's not possible to reasonably deny that the Democratic Party is how it is because that's how its leaders, including Obama, want it to be. Their actions permit no other conclusion. Indeed, one potential bright side with what's happening with the health care debate -- the Party's total devotion to the health care and drug industries despite huge majorities and a massive electoral mandate -- is that these truths have become so glaring that it is finally forcing even the most "sensible" Democratic partisans (TNR) to recognize how fundamentally flawed the Party is. That also appears to be making the prospect of recruiting credible challenges easier, and Accountability Now hopes to have some significant announcements soon.
If the Democratic Party is to become a meaningful alternative, free from corporate control, that will happen not because party leaders such as Obama cause it to happen. Instead, it will only occur from efforts on the part of Democrats to cease support for, and begin working to eject, those elements which keep the Party beholden to the same interests as the ones who own and control the so-called "other party." Systematic, credible primary challenges -- to impose a price for the Party on this behavior (by forcing them to divert resources to fending off primary challenges) and to make incumbents more accountable to their constituents -- is the best, perhaps the only, means for accomplishing that, if it can be accomplished at all.