Lieberman Democrats

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Michael Scherer doesn't think much of Joe Lieberman's "I didn't leave the Democrats; the Democrats left me" remarks on "The Week" over the weekend. Here's the quote:

Well, I say that the Democratic Party changed. The Democratic Party today was not the party it was in 2000. It’s not the Bill Clinton-Al Gore party, which was strong internationalists, strong on defense, pro-trade, pro-reform in our domestic government. It’s been effectively taken over by a small group on the left of the party that is protectionist, isolationist and basically will —and very, very hyperpartisan. So it pains me.

But as Reihan notes, Lieberman is factually correct: The Democratic Party has shifted leftward over the last decade, on the fronts he mentions as well as others. Moreover, among many of Lieberman's left-liberal foes, this leftward shift is viewed as a great achievement, which suggests that they would be better served treating his comments as a compliment than as a calumny. It's fair to pillory Lieberman for failing to change with the times; it's a little strange to pillory him for merely pointing out that times have changed.

The only truly questionable portion of Lieberman's remarks is his suggestion that the change agents responsible for the Democratic Party's progressive turn represent "a small group on the left of the party." It's too soon to tell if the the new-model Democrats are headed for a long-term majority or just a short-term, post-Bush bounce, and maybe Lieberman's right that the the Dems' leftward shift will eventually drive the party into a political ditch. But given how the landscape looks right now, Lieberman sounds an awful lot like the Rockefeller Republicans of yore, who would complain about how a "small group of extremists" in the conservative movement were hijacking their party and dooming it to defeat, even as those same extremists were leading the GOP to national successes that the Jacob Javitses and Christine Todd Whitmans and Lowell Weickers could only dream about.

There's an important lesson here: Namely, that the American "center" moves around a lot (and varies wildly on an issue-by-issue basis), and thus a party that moves leftward or rightward on the hot-button issues of the day can sometimes find a new center that nobody realized was there. This tends to leave the inhabitants of the old middle - the Rockefeller Republicans in the '70s and '80s, and perhaps the Lieberman Democrats of today - flummoxed and out-of-step, unable to figure out that just because they've always considered themselves "centrists" doesn't mean the American people will always agree with them.

Photo by Flickr user Lieberman_2006 used under a Creative Commons license.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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