The Center Cannot Hold

Judging from Al Gore's selection of Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his running mate, Ralph Nader still hasn't put enough of a scare into the Democrats. For months, Gore has been hearing Nader criticize the rightward drift of the Democratic Party as its leaders cozy up to the corporate interests that bankroll the two-party "duopoly." The choice of Lieberman, chairman of the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council, represents another step to the right for the Vice President as the Democrats head into their national convention in Los Angeles.

Gore teased progressives during his selection process with rumors that liberals such as Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa were under consideration -- but the only thing short about that list was the shrift progressive candidates ended up getting. Later, it was reported that Defense Secretary William Cohen was being considered for vice president. Most thought it was a stretch because Cohen was, and apparently still is, a Republican. But with Lieberman, Gore came as close as he could to the GOP without actually pulling an elephant out of the hat.

Lieberman is a consistent supporter of big business and "free trade," voting in 1999 against controls on steel imported into the US and for free trade in Africa and the Caribbean Basin without enforceable labor and health standards. In 1995, he voted to override Clinton's veto of a bill to curb class-action securities lawsuits; in 1996, he opposed Clinton in voting to limit punitive damages in product liability cases. He supported the welfare repeal that Clinton signed into law, he supports development of an anti-missile defense system and he supports vouchers to allow parents to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. He has supported military involvement in drug interdiction and anti-terrorist initiatives. In 1998, Lieberman supported privatization of Social Security, telling Copley News Service that "individual control of part of the retirement/Social Security funds has to happen." Coming from Connecticut, he is very protective of insurance companies that have generously donated to him. In short, Lieberman is the very model of a compassionate conservative and he helps close the gap between the campaigns of Gore and Bush.

Republicans were impressed with the selection of this righteous moralist who was the first Democrat to publicly attack Bill Clinton after the President admitted his affair with a White House intern in 1998. Lieberman might deflect the GOP effort, apparent during that party's recent convention, to tar Gore with the sins of Clinton. Indeed, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey conducted after the announcement showed Bush's lead trimmed to only 2 percentage points, down from a 17-point span just the day before the Lieberman announcement.

Most Democratic leaders as well as labor leaders applauded the selection and it probably makes sense from a political point of view to line up Gore with such a centrist figure of public rectitude, but the Connecticut senator is not a figure about whom the rank and file -- and particularly progressive populists -- can get excited.

Also, you have to wonder about the strategic sense in picking a senator from Connecticut who, if the Democrats win the White House, would be replaced by a Republican in the Senate for at least the next two years, at a time the Democrats have an outside shot at recapturing the Senate. You can bet the Republican that would replace Lieberman will not be another Lowell Weicker, the moderate civil libertarian whom Lieberman beat to get to the Senate in 1988.

Gore could have picked a former senator from the Northeast with centrist leanings but at least some liberal inclinations -- Bill Bradley (who needs the work). Despite their putative differences this past spring, Bradley and Gore never were that far apart -- the main difference being that Bradley at least is willing to talk about spending some of that $2 trillion-plus federal surplus on a national health care plan and other pressing needs.

If Al Gore wants to win this election, he must advance a more populist agenda that puts people ahead of corporations. He has a chance to redefine himself in the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, but his choice of Lieberman signals that he will instead put on another "feel-good" convention like the Republicans just produced in Philadelphia. That will drive more progressives to either Nader or the fishing hole come election day. Conservatives, given the choice of Gore or Bush, will sensibly choose the "real" conservative -- George W. Bush.

Remember that Dubya became Governor of Texas in large part because his predecessor, Democrat Ann Richards, chose to govern as a business-oriented centrist. She may have been the best governor in 50 years -- a title that doesn't mean too much given the state's sorry record in that era -- and she remained popular, but when Dubya showed up to run for governor in 1994 with his daddy's Rolodex, liberal Democrats were unwilling or unable to turn out enough of a vote for her re-election effort to overcome the megabucks powering the Republican campaign. The business lobby, recognizing one of their own, closed in around Dubya, who also avenged the speech to the Democratic convention in 1992 in which Richards ridiculed the elder Bush.

Now Dubya is poised to take the final revenge -- if not against Clinton, who beat his daddy, then against Gore, who was on the ticket. And to do it, Bush has stolen Clinton's playbook and co-opted many traditionally Democratic themes.

At their convention, which was beyond parody, the Republicans wanted to talk about everything except their mossback platform. You also never would have known from watching the convention that the GOP controls both houses of Congress. We never saw Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, nor Jesse Helms, nor Orrin Hatch, nor Phil Gramm, unless some enterprising reporter cornered one of them en route to a reception put on by some corporate benefactor. We never saw Majority Leader Dick Armey nor GOP Whip Tom (The Hammer) DeLay, the right-wing tandem behind the gentle face of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Even Hastert, it seemed, only showed up to gavel the convention to order and to adjourn. In between were Gospel groups, salsa acts, a pro wrassler, and all the diversity that an 83% white convention could muster.

The only time we heard about Armey was when he made another off-color joke about Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), about whose professed homosexuality Armey seems to have a fixation. Curiously, given the Clinton-bashing that formed the subtext of the convention, none of the House managers of the failed impeachment effort were showcased.

We never heard that Dick Cheney, was running Halliburton, the world's largest oil services company, when he got the nod from Bush, a former oil exec, to form what Reuters called the oil industry's "Dream Team," just a month after gasoline prices topped $2 in the Midwest.

Bush, fighting his smirk as he delivered his acceptance speech, actually recalled the civil rights movement, saying "We shall overcome," with a wink to the segregationists whose favor he curried during the primary season. Dubya promised to fix Social Security and Medicare, without going into specifics, since his numbers don't add up. He called for local control of education, although wants more testing so that schools can be more accountable to the Feds. He wants to cut taxes for everybody and abolish the "death tax" for the 2% who leave estates worth more than $1.3 million. No clues, again, where he is going to get the money, particularly when he wants to rebuild the military, implement the Star Wars missile defense system and offer tax credits for health insurance and affordable housing. As governor, he noted with pride, "We cut taxes twice," but failed to note that those tax cuts left a lot of poor children behind, while he took good care of the oil and chemical companies.

The saddest part of the convention was watching the once-proud John McCain reduced to reading a speech of fulsome praise for the nominee whose campaign had viciously and repeatedly slurred him just a few months ago. I went back to replay the videotape, half expecting to see McCain blink out "SOS" in Morse Code, or perhaps "CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM," the words he dared not speak aloud. But there was nothing; only the look on his face like he'd been forced to eat a bug. Who will eat the bug in LA?

-- JMC

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