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Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Legacy Haunting Gore (August 9, 2000)
Trade, not scandal, Jack Beatty argues, is the legacy of the Clinton years that could cost Gore the election.

The Issues That Aren't (July 26, 2000)
Where does George W. Bush stand on Microsoft? Where does Al Gore stand on Kosovo? On Big Tobacco? You don't know? You're not alone, writes Christopher Caldwell.

The Democratic Difference (July 13, 2000)
Ralph Nader says the Republican and Democratic parties are indistinguishable. Jack Beatty looks at the record on labor, "the issue our era will be measured by," and sees quite another reality.

Your Morality, My Values (June 28, 2000)
Values and morality may sound like the same thing, Christopher Caldwell writes, but Democrats have been able to capitalize on one, while Republicans remain stuck on the other.

Who Owns Capitalism? (June 15, 2000)
Has democracy at last caught up with capitalism? Jack Beatty on the balance of power between the corporation and society.

Joe Sixpack's Revenge (May 17, 2000)
If the authors of two new books are right, it's time for Republicans to give class warfare a chance. Christopher Caldwell explains.

Governing Globalism (May 3, 2000)
Jack Beatty on the protests in Washington, Runaway World, and globalization's good and bad sides.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.


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Leftward Bound

Can you teach a New Democrat old tricks?

by Christopher Caldwell


August 23, 2000

One prominent member of the Democratic Leadership Council -- the think tank of centrist Democratic intellectuals and politicians that gave the country Bill Clinton, and which vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman now chairs -- had forebodings when Lieberman was tapped for the Democratic ticket. This anonymity-demanding DLC member, who has been in dozens of meetings with Lieberman, knows him to be every bit the swing-voter-pleasing moderate the Gore ticket presents him as. But he told me the day Lieberman was picked that those credentials wouldn't do the ticket much good. "Poor Joe," he said, "is going to be vice-president-ized very quickly." That's to say he'll be forced to mute much that is distinctive about him in order to please the party's left wing.

On the day of Lieberman's selection, press aides began circulating an as-yet-unpublished editorial in which Lieberman recanted his earlier support for the privatization of Social Security. When, on the eve of the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Congressional Black Caucus firebrand Maxine Waters threatened to withhold her endorsement because of Lieberman's positions on school vouchers and affirmative action, Lieberman agreed to appear before the Democratic National Committee's own black caucus. There, he didn't quite repudiate everything he'd said about vouchers -- he gave cringing support for pilot programs. But he threw his previous skepticism about quotas out the window. ("I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action, and I will support affirmative action.")

No one would call Gore-Lieberman a radical ticket, but it is measurably to the left of the Clinton-Gore ticket that won in 1996, and it has a decidedly Old Democrat cast. Whereas Clinton and Gore ran on crime reduction, budget balancing, and welfare reform, Gore and Lieberman are running on expanded medical benefits and defense of affirmative action.

But why mess with the successful Clinton formula? In part, Gore and Lieberman are gambling that the country has moved left on economic issues in the wake of the Clinton surpluses. While pragmatic Republican governors have revived confidence in government at the local level, it is President Clinton who gets credit for the current health of the national economy. Other Democrats want to use the political capital the President has accumulated to move the party left. Moving left in times of prosperity has been almost a reflex in American politics since the Great Society. The surprising revival of labor under the AFL-CIO head John Sweeney has strengthened this leftward shift. Whatever the cause of the Democratic resurgence in 1998, Democrats (new and old) attribute it to the involvement of organized labor, and they expect labor's role to grow this autumn.

Paradoxically, the very success of Bill Clinton's centrist governance has made his moderate wing more vulnerable to demands from the party's old, liberal base. The Democratic left is doing exactly what the Republican right did at the tail end of the Reagan Administration. In 1988 the Christian right tallied up its contributions to the Republican sway over the White House and reckoned that Reagan had given them exactly nothing in return -- no pro-life laws, no tax exemptions for Christian academies beyond the ones Jimmy Carter had passed in the waning days of his presidency. This was the climate in which Pat Robertson ran for President -- and won the Iowa caucuses.

Likewise, the Democratic Party's old-guard liberals sense not only that the Clinton Administration owes them one, but also that -- with a gargantuan budget surplus -- the Administration can afford to pay them one. The left is calling in its chits. In demanding avowals of support for affirmative action in the wake of the Lieberman pick, Maxine Waters is asking only that she be given something in return for having bitten her tongue on welfare reform.

Gore is by instinct less fiscally conservative than Clinton. He's not as keen on the DLC's domestic obsessions as Clinton was, and his credentials as a moderate Democrat come almost solely from his work on foreign policy. So Gore has been willing to buy peace with the left of his party. Even though the country is moving toward New Democrat policies, that doesn't solve Gore's problems. As one Lieberman associate put it, "Americans want to elect a Democrat this fall. Unfortunately, that Democrat may well be George W. Bush." For some reason, yet to be adequately explained, voters in the center of the electorate don't like Gore. Perhaps it's a mere matter of personality, but middle-income whites seem to be rejecting Gore by a 2-to-1 margin. That's where Lieberman comes in. At the same time that Gore needs to reassure his party's left, Gore needs Lieberman's centrist credibility to reassure swing voters. Lieberman anticipated and exceeded Bill Clinton on welfare reform; Al Gore did not. Lieberman has shown a willingness to challenge teachers' unions and trial lawyers, who are the Democratic Party's most generous backers; Gore has not.

The Republicans' "Soul Train" convention in Philadelphia scared Democrats, who spent much of their own convention trying to spin the Republican effort as an "inclusion illusion." Just as Republicans woke up with a fright in 1992 to find that they were facing neither Michael Dukakis's foreign policy nor Jesse Jackson's racial policy nor Walter Mondale's labor policy, Democrats are waking up to find that there is no Newt Gingrich or Pat Robertson on the horizon. Bush's Republican convention -- which argued, in effect, "We can match your diversity initiatives and raise them, and we can govern more responsibly" -- struck Democrats as a success. Lieberman's positions are similar enough to Bush's that they foreclose the possibility of using the "ultra-extreme-right," scare-the-public tactics Democrats have used for the past two election cycles. They were willing to pick Lieberman and thus forgo what has in the past been a highly successful game plan because they don't believe it will work on Bush.

The Lieberman pick turns out to have been one of the more important vice-presidential selections of the modern era, not because of his religion, but because he's an apt emblem for the whole Gore campaign. The election is likely to hinge on whether it's possible to appeal to the center by picking a moderate Democrat -- while appealing to the party base by having him repudiate the policies that established his moderate credentials in the first place.


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More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

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