The Beat Goes Independent and Center-Left
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Every Sunday CUIP's political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, August 13, 2006 after watching "The Chris Matthews Show," "Meet the Press" and "The McLaughlin Group."
Salit: “The McLaughlin Group” discussed the Lamont/Lieberman contest in some detail and with a lot of passion and fervor. Ned Lamont beats Joe Lieberman 52% to 48% in the Democratic primary. Lieberman files his petitions to run as an independent. The anti-war forces in the Democratic Party gain ground. Questions are raised like ‘Is Hillary Clinton going to be forced to recant? If she does, does she lose credibility? If she doesn’t, does that leave a wide opening on her left in terms of the 2008 presidential and the race for the Democratic nomination?’ and so forth. In the midst of this conversation, McLaughlin turns to his panelists and says ‘What’s the beat, what’s going on? Something’s changing. Tell me what’s going on in the country. Something’s clearly happening. What is it?’ How would you answer his question? What’s the beat?
Newman: There are two critical things happening.
Newman: The country is going independent.
Newman: Within the independent movement, the “beat” is, Is it going to be pro-war or anti-war?
Salit: And the answer?
Newman: It’s going to be anti-war. It’s a center-left independent movement that’s emerging.
Newman: And Lamont, and whoever his people were who advised him, were clever enough to put those two together.
Salit: And he’s the new figure in American politics.
Newman: Simple story.
Salit: Okay. The Lamont people put together being a political independent and being anti-war. His anti-war voice has been covered from here to Timbuktu. How would you characterize his political independence and the appeal that he makes to independent voters?
Newman: He’s an outsider to the traditional Democratic Party machine. He’s as independent as you can be as a Democrat.
Salit: He goes up against a three-term status-quo party leader. That’s how you show your independence.
Newman: He’s as independent as a Democrat can be. As is Al Sharpton. As is Jesse Jackson, some of the people who were behind him. That’s what it is to be an independent Democrat. Now, is that as independent as you can be? No, because you can be an independent independent. But that’s not what the Democrats are going to do.
Salit: Well, it’s the Democratic primary and there were two interesting things about the numbers in the race. The turnout was very, very high, almost double what it traditionally is for a statewide Democratic primary in Connecticut. And something like 15 to 20,000 independents re-registered into the Democratic Party, which you’re allowed to do in Connecticut up until the day before the primary, in order to vote in it. And the polls showed that the majority of those independents who re-registered went with Lamont, meaning they went with the anti-war voice, the anti-war position.
Newman: They’re the anti-war independents.
Salit: Yes, the anti-war independents. So back to your statement on what the “beat” is.
Newman: Well, the country’s going independent and the independent movement is going center-left, which substantively means anti-war.
Salit: You’re saying that the independent movement is heading center-left. But, part of what we’re looking at is, of course, that Lieberman is now running as an independent in Connecticut and he’s a pro-war Democrat.
Newman: He’s not an independent. The question that we, as independents, have to bring into Connecticut, is a question for Joe Lieberman.
Salit: The question to Lieberman is?
Newman: What is it that you’re independent of? You’re surely not independent of the traditional Democratic Party. You ran your whole campaign on the basis of being identified with it.
Newman: And you’re surely not independent of George Bush because you were seen in every poster embracing him. So what is it that you are independent of?
Newman: I take it that what you’re attempting to be independent of is losing your job. That’s the only thing that I’m certain that you’re independent of.
Salit: That doesn’t really define being an independent.
Newman: Not exactly.
Salit: Some political players are already trying to play into that issue on the other side. Example: the Bloomberg endorsement of Lieberman. Actually, the two New York politicians to endorse Lieberman as an independent are Mike Bloomberg and Ed Koch. The Bloomberg message is: ‘I’m supporting Joe Lieberman. He’s the best candidate and the fact that all the Democrats who supported him in the primary are now saying well, we’re going to support the Democrat Lamont shows that they’re willing to support a political party over their political views and their political beliefs, and that’s partisanship of the worst kind.’ And, says Bloomberg, ‘I’m an independent, and I think that what Lieberman has done is admirable and is independent because it’s putting principles before parties and, hence, I’m supporting him.’
Newman: Why didn’t Lieberman run as an independent before he lost?
Salit: Because he thought he was going to win the Democratic primary.
Newman: And he made plain that if he did win, he wouldn’t run as an independent. So, how is he an independent?
Salit: He’s not. He’s simply being pragmatic.
Newman: That’s why he held the independent petitions until after the election was over.
Newman: So what kind of independent is he? At least Bloomberg had the courage to declare himself an independent before the election was held.
Newman: He became the candidate of the Independence Party of New York before he won the Republican primary.
Newman: So Bloomberg has a good sense of the correct practice. He’s practiced it. But he can be politically tone deaf. He cares about bringing good management to this city, and I support good management. But, you can’t move this city in a positive direction without politics, and in the area of politics, I don’t think he’s got a good ear. He’s a decent man and he’s a good manager. He fortunately had some astute political people around him during his first term, including you. And a great deal of money. That’s a good combination. But he is not that politically sharp.
Salit: I thought it was interesting, going back to “The McLaughlin Group,” that Eleanor Clift made such a point of stressing that independents aren’t pro-war, they don’t support the war. That’s true. We’ve known that for a long time. We know that through the organizing that we do, and through the polling that we do, and through all the work we do to build organizations of independents around the country. But the predominant view that the media has of independents is that independents are centrists or center-right.
Newman: That’s where the independent movement was. It’s not where the independent movement is now. It’s where it comes from. The modern independent movement began with Ross Perot, who is center-right.
Newman: And on occasion, more right than center. But that’s not where it lives any longer. Ross Perot is out of it. But, if you want proof of the center-left nature of the independent movement, that’s not to be found exclusively in the Ned Lamont victory, which is a minor victory.
Salit: Where else?
Newman: The big victory is that Eleanor Clift won the debate on “The McLaughlin Report.” For the first time I think in ten years.
Salit: That’s a good point. So what does this all mean for Hillary Clinton?
Newman: It means that, as was discussed on “The Chris Matthews Show,” she has a crucial decision coming down the road and she’s trying to finesse it with attacks on Rumsfeld, as if anybody cares about that any longer. There’s another dead issue. Rumsfeld is not an important or significant topical issue right now. Hillary can go after that, but that’s not going to hold up indefinitely.
Newman: At some point, she’s going to have to make a decision. But, she’s waiting as long as she can, which is good politics. She wants to see the results of the congressionals coming up.
Salit: The midterms in November.
Newman: The midterms. And then she’ll analyze those and see how far she’s got to move if she still wants to run. You know how politics is done in terms of making decisions about what you’re doing. In terms of getting elected, the basic methodological axiom is “Wait until absolutely the last minute.” Everyone tries to wait for the last minute to do everything.
Salit: But holding her current position, even with sending out signals that she’s being more critical of the war, could attract stronger competition on her left. And there’s a danger in waiting because she leaves that flank open.
Newman: There’s only one competitor she’s worried about on her left, and that’s Al Gore.
Salit: Nobody else is serious competition.
Newman: She’s not worried about Feingold.
Salit: Or John Edwards.
Newman: I don’t know if John Edwards could convince anybody that he’s to the left of Hillary Clinton. No matter what he said his policy is on the war.
Salit: Okay. On the Republican side, also known as the White House…
Newman: Also known as the U.S. government…
Salit: Also known as the U.S. government. Bush came out with this statement that we’re at war with the Islamic Fascists. Leaving aside for a moment the debate about the use of that language, Howard Fineman argued on “The Chris Matthews Show,” that whenever the Bush Administration and Karl Rove find themselves in a political predicament, their response is to make the issue bigger, to turn it into a strategic concern, and that’s what that comment was about. In a sense, take all of this discussion about whether the war is or isn’t going well, whether we are or aren’t up to par in terms of homeland security, and what you do is take the debate away from those particulars and turn it into a clash of civilizations kind of thing. That’s been effective for them. But, numbers of people are now saying, is that going to continue to work for them? Can they still draw the lens back to these kinds of strategic framings and maintain the support of the American people?
Newman: Well, I don’t know if the question is maintaining the support of the American people. To be more concrete, it’s more a question of whether that position is consistent with providing the American people with any level of security whatsoever.
Newman: And I think the answer is that it isn’t. This global campaign, this Civilization Against Civilization, which is where the neocons were coming from, is thoroughly inconsistent with providing reasonable security for the homeland, for the American people. There’s a prima facie inconsistency there.
Salit: Which is?
Newman: If you identify your mission as winning over the world for Judeo-Christian Democracy, you’re making the people who live in your country pretty damn vulnerable.
Salit: I’m thinking of the cover of this week’s Time magazine, the headline of which says something like ‘A plot to kill thousands, Iraq in flames, Bin Laden at large, five years since 9/11, are we safer?’ And the answer, as Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton said, is ‘Well, we’re safer, but not as safe as we need to be.’
Newman: But that’s not the issue. The issue is not Are we safer? That’s not the question. That’s an impossible question to answer. The real question is Have we done anything in these five years that takes us in the direction of being safer? The answer to that question is no.
Newman: That’s the serious question. And the answer is no because there’s a fundamental contradiction in the Bush position. Its foreign policy position is inconsistent with its homeland security responsibilities. The Bush regime has contributed profoundly to making Al Qaeda and Bin Laden the head of a movement of the Islamic Fascists. And unfortunately, you can make an argument that the Islamic Fascists are a huge movement.
Salit: And the use of that term?
Newman: I think the definitions that “The McLaughlin Group” crowd were working with about what Fascism is were very self-serving. Fascism is actually, it seems to me, fundamentally a reactionary look to the past – both in form and content – to bring together huge masses of people. Now, is there a struggle within Islam for leadership? And is at least one of the positions, and a not insignificant position, a fundamentalist position which looks mainly to the past? Yes. But, rather than treating Bin Laden as a criminal and trying to do what they had to do to catch him, to put him in jail and do whatever you have to do to him as a criminal, they’ve instead elevated him to the leader of the other side in the war.
Salit: And our Iraq policy?
Newman: Our Iraq policy is consistent with that position, but it’s a devastatingly wrong-headed position. That’s why they went to Iraq. Yes, people wanted to go in there before, and Saddam Hussein is a bad guy and we need oil and so on. But, their political perspective was war on terrorism. That’s what took them to Iraq. Wrong-headed, wrong position, even on their own terms, which are contradictory.
Salit: Both Hamilton and Kean pointed out in the “Meet the Press” interview that it has produced the radicalization of the Muslim world.
Newman: Well, I don’t know if that’s accurate. There are other things that produced the radicalization of the Muslim world. The way the U.S. has handled that whole region for a long time has more to do with it. I didn’t think Hamilton and Kean said much at all.
Salit: They didn’t want to just come out and say The Iraq War is a distraction and if we were serious about homeland security, we should never have gone into Iraq.
Newman: They sort of got forced into that position, but they didn’t want to go there. David Gregory did a fairly decent job in forcing them in that direction. That’s what they thought, but they didn’t want to say it.
Salit: Howard Dean and Ken Mehlman were on. The Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee respectively. Howard Dean comes on and he says ‘The way to help this country is to limit Republican power.’ Obviously, he’s campaigning for the Democrats to take control of Congress, keying up for a presidential election and so on.
Newman: That’s wrong, that remark. Even on his terms.
Salit: What should he say?
Newman: What you’re supposed to be saying as the Chairman of the Democratic Party is The way to change the country is to increase Democratic Party power, not to limit Republican power. And you’re not going to increase Democratic Party power unless you do something about what the Democratic Party stands for.
Newman: And who’s doing that? Who’s making the Democratic Party, if you will, not only move to the left, but move to a position of loyal opposition, an alternative position to Republican neo-conservatism? Who’s accomplishing that? Is it Howard Dean? Well, maybe he’s doing something. If he is, that’s good. But, it’s the independent movement. Independents are pushing the Democrats to the left. Independents got Ned Lamont elected.
Salit: That’s true.
Newman: Independents are not simply the swing vote. And certainly not Joe Lieberman pretending that he’s an independent.
Salit: Not at all. When Joe Lieberman ran for president in the 2004 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, he made a direct appeal for independent voters – but he only got 10% of the independent vote. Howard Dean and John Kerry split the bulk of the independent vote. And Lieberman just lost among independents in the Connecticut primary.
Newman: The independent movement in this country is more and more shaping the contours of American political life. Do they have power yet themselves? Do the independent political organizations we’ve built have power yet? No. We have to figure out and are engaged in the long-term task, which I think is building at the local level, to accomplish that in the long haul. Meanwhile, independents are playing a very, very big role in American political life. Just take a look at Connecticut if you don’t believe that. The independent movement has emerged as a center-left force in American political life.
Newman: To many of the people who read this, and certainly to you and the many people across the country who are playing leadership roles in making that happen, it looks very, very small. And, in an organized sense it is small. But, as a factor in shaping the contours of American political life, state by state and nationally, the independents are a very important force. Now the transformation of that into political power is going to take a very long time. But, that’s not our concern now. The issue for the independents, at least as far as I’m concerned, is to help the country to get it right, not just to have power for power’s sake.
Salit: Not just to have a party for a party’s sake. That’s the position that we’re opposed to.
Newman: But we’re not opposed to influencing the politics of this country in that correct direction, and I think that we’re more and more playing that role. But we have to get into this Connecticut thing and ask the question, What is it that Joe Lieberman is independent of? Because he’s trying to pass himself off as an independent. He’s no independent. Independent doesn’t mean that you talk with people across the aisle. That’s what elected officials are supposed to do to govern. That’s not independent. Independent means having a position independent of partisan politics, it’s a new politic, a new substantive politic and position, as opposed to some of the more reactionary positions of both the Democrats and the Republicans who currently run Washington and run most of the states. That’s what independent means.
Salit: Thanks, Fred.