I’m getting pretty tired of reading op-ed pieces about the impending McGovernization of the Democratic Party, after Sen. Lieberman’s defeat by Ned Lamont in the CT primary last week. The historical analogy simply doesn’t work, in my opinion.
1. Presidential electoral politics are different than state Congressional races: even if it were the case (and it’s not — see below) that Ned Lamont represents the “far left” of the party, doesn’t mean he’s not electable depending upon the state or district he’s running in. Local majorities can, and often do, elect folks to Congressional seats (House and Senate) that are more extreme (to the right or left) than are electable in a 50-state Presidential race. Jim McDermott keeps getting elected to the House by his Seattle-based district, and although he’s clearly not electable state-wide in a Senate race, he seems pretty safe in his district. Similarly, Lamont may not represent a viable Presidential candidate, but he seems electable at the state level for a Senate seat. So this is clearly not a doomed-in-advance “protest” effort by Democrats. Lamont’s candidacy is real and has a fair chance of being electorally competitive if he doesn’t screw up on the campaign trail.
2. Lamont is not exactly on the “far left”: leaving aside for the moment of what, precisely, it means to be on the “far left” wing of the party these days, Lamont isn’t even close. His positions on major issues appear to be fairly standard DLC centrism. His health care “plan” doesn’t push a single-payer system, or any form of radical change. Instead it recommits us to employer-provided health care, with tweaks to ensure that small businesses can buy into cost-effective insurance pools and slightly improved subsidies for under- or un-insured Americans. This is much closer to the Republican leadership’s response to the 2000 State of the Union address than a radical reform. His education policy is mainline Democratic politics — support for public education rather than vouchers or privatization. There’s nothing in his issue statements that remotely resembles the social democracy of the McGovern left; indeed, Lamont appears to be a straightforward “90’s Democrat” — a business-savvy supporter of moderate reforms and regulation of an underlying free-enterprise system, combined with progressive stances on social issues. Little about Lamont is reminiscent of the gulf that existed within the Democrats between, say, Scoop Jackson and George McGovern in 1972.
3. Even if Lamont were as radically leftist as many have claimed, his victory in the CT primary doesn’t represent a trend. Democratic senatorial nominations are not falling to the radical left of the party. As Michael Tomasky argued last week in Slate, of eight Democratic senators seeking reelection who voted for the Iraq resolution, only Lieberman faces a serious primary challenge. Feinstein (D-CA) won her primary with 87 percent of the vote, Ben Nelson didn’t even have a challenger in the primary, and Hong Tran is nowhere near a real threat for Maria Cantwell in my home state of Washington. Lieberman’s defeat is not part of a national trend which threatens to move the Democrats to the far left.
If the Democrats lose big this November in Congressional races, it’s not going to be because they’ve moved to the “far left,” because they haven’t. There are precious few “leftists” in national politics today, as that term has been classically defined. No party which supports capitalism and free enterprise, helped dismantle true entitlement programs like classical “welfare” (during the Clinton years), and won’t touch full-scale reform of health care provisioning can properly be called “leftist”, let alone on the “far left.” A traditional “left” simply does not exist in American politics today. We have a party of the center, and a party of the right, and it’s damaging to honest discourse to pretend otherwise. Mainstream Democratic politics is still the Democratic politics of the centrist DLC, and will remain so unless popular support for a “true left” appears among mainstream voters in this country.