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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The politics of compromise

Defeated. Turfed. Rejected. Repudiated. Call it what you want, but the result is clear: Last night, Connecticut Democrats decided they had enough with Joe Lieberman's politics of constant compromise. And they made the right choice.

Joe Lieberman is a good man. I have the deepest admiration for Joe because he is decent and honest. His credentials as a Democrat are solid, longstanding and irrefutable. A lot of people are attributing his failure to his strong support for the Iraq war. Granted, Iraq fueled much of Ned Lamont's insurgent candidacy. But Joe's problems went beyond his support for Bush's foreign policies. His problem is that he represents the Democratic Party's failed strategy to capture the imagination of Americans.

For the past thirty years or so, Republicans been consistent in presenting a clear and simple vision for America. Small government. Low taxes. Tough on crime. Tough on defense. Tough on terror. Family values. They have also built a political infrastructure of conservative think-tanks, talk radio shows, activist groups and (more recently) bloggers to support this simple vision. And over and over again, they've won.

For their part, Democrats have been less successful. They have neglected to build a comparable political infrastructure for liberal ideas. As a result, the liberal voice -- equality for all, health care for all, education for all, job security for all -- has been drowned out by the conservative roar. And over and over again, they've lost.

Rather than work on building a solid liberal infrastructure to spread its vision, the Democratic Party adopted a different approach to winning based on presenting a "centrist," "moderate" or "compromising" alternative to the Republican message. This approach rejects the "extremism" of both the progressive left and the conservative right, and proposes that the Democratic Party represent a happy medium, where compromises can be found to most of the country's problems. Organizations such as the Democratic Leadership Council have strongly backed this approach. The DLC points to the fact that the only Democrat elected nationwide in the past 30 years was Bill Clinton, a centrist and former DLC head.

Compromise is a legitimate and necessary aspect of politics. But its practicality, particularly in a two-party system, requires that both sides come to it in good faith and from equal bargaining positions. The problem in the U.S. is that the Republicans are very comfortable being a conservative party. Democrats (or at least those who listen to the DLC) say they are not comfortable being a liberal party. The DLC rejects liberalism as much as it rejects conservatism, viewing both as too extreme. Thus, the impetus for conservative Republicans to compromise with liberal Democrats is eliminated. If the Democratic Party rejects liberalism, why should Republicans acknowledge it?

This scenario, which is a reality in America today, is the reason so many American liberals are upset. For the past fifteen or twenty years, their progressive vision has been pushed aside in favour of the politics of compromise from which, ironically, no real compromises have sprung. Republicans keep on winning and Democrats keep on losing. The "centrism" strategy has failed. And progressives are tired of it.

Which brings us back to the situation with Joe Lieberman. Connecticut is one of those blue states which consistently, if not overwhelmingly, votes Democrat. It makes sense for the Democrats to run true progressives in states like Connecticut for the same reason it makes sense for Republicans to run true conservatives in states like Wyoming, Nebraska or Alabama. Why? Because they can. And when it comes time to compromise with conservative Republicans, progressive voters stand to gain more by having true progressives representing them in Washington. Joe Lieberman not a true progressive. He is, at best, a centrist. He supports the war in Iraq. He favours school vouchers. He favours censorship. He opposes gay marriage. He supported Bush's appointment of conservative John Roberts to the Supreme Court. In short, he was not doing enough to reflect the views of progressives who elected him. By contrast, Ned Lamont is a true liberal. He will do Connecticut proud.

So should all centrist Democrats be defeated and replaced with die-hard liberals? In a perfect world, I'd say yes, but as we know the world is far from perfect. In some states, Democrats have little chance at winning, and running liberals probably wouldn't be wise. In the short term, it makes sense to run so-called "centrist" Democrats in these states, such Rep. Harold Ford in Tennessee (although he is still a bit too conservative for my liking). Hopefully, centrists will be able to moderate the conservative political culture in some of these red states.

The long term goal should always be to build a strong liberal infrastructure in each and every state. It will be more difficult in some areas and easier in others. But it has to start somewhere. I'm glad Connecticut Democrats decided to begin this process. As I look towards 2008 and beyond, I have to ask myself: "Who's next?"