As the midterm elections approach, the Democrats must decide where they stand. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) stood his ground-supporting the Iraq War and free trade-and lost his primary to upstart candidate Ned Lamont. Positions like Lamont’s, which are critical of the Iraq War and of free trade agreements, challenge the ideological hegemony that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the affiliated Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) have exercised over the Democratic Party since the 1980s.
The DLC, a grouping of Democratic officials at the national, state, and local levels founded in 1985, contends that to win elections Democrats must tack right and embrace center-right positions on national security (higher military budgets, support for wars); trade (free not fair); and the role of government (limited). The PPI, founded in 1989 by Al From and Will Marshall, sets DLC policy positions on everything from the war on terror to education and globalization.
Working together, the DLC and the PPI have largely succeeded in setting a center-right political agenda for the Democratic Party. But as more Democratic politicians articulate positions against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and join the backlash against economic globalization, the DLC’s influence appears to be waning. The decision of Senator Lieberman, a former DLC chairman (1995 to 2000), to seek reelection as an Independent after he lost the Democratic primary highlights the uncertain future of the DLC’s so-called New Democrats. The PPI attempts to stake out a middle position or “third way” on many issues. For example, it advocates that “progressive internationalism” guide U.S. foreign and military policy rather than the Bush administration’s “conservative unilateralism” or the purported pacifism of the left and center-left, what Marshall calls the “noninterventionist left.”
In practice, though, DLC/PPI positions differ little from that of the Bush administration. As Israel rained bombs down on Lebanon, the DLC’s New Dem Dispatch echoed the neoconservative camp in its plea for the Bush administration to avoid the supposed shame of appeasement in the Middle East. Adopting the same line taken by the Bush administration and the Israeli government, the newsletter recommended that the war be taken to Tehran and Damascus, which “have become clear threats to regional and world peace, and must be isolated and sanctioned, not appeased” (July 18, 2006).
At a time when the rest of the world was calling for an immediate cease-fire, the New Dem commentary urged support for Israel’s “countermeasures,” which were focused on “removing a threat that no one else is prepared to remove-a matter of self-defense.” The commentary continued: “All the international calls for Israel to limit itself to ‘proportional’ military action miss the whole point. Proposals for an immediate cease-fire represent little more than a demand for Israel to stop defending itself.”
As it turned out, Israel itself agreed to a cease-fire after it became clear that it could not remove the threat of Hezbollah without obliterating Lebanon.
Similarly, the DLC and PPI have been strong backers of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. A recent book edited by PPI-founder Marshall calls for the U.S. government to be smarter and more strategic in Iraq and other military fronts; in With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty, Marshall and other PPI analysts present what they call “a progressive alternative” for defeating jihadist terror.
In the book’s opening essay, Marshall writes: “The Bush Republicans have been tough, but they have not been smart.” The progressive alternative, which Marshall believes will ensure the election of Democrats, is staying tough but getting smart.
Hanging tough, by this definition, means staying in Iraq until it is stabilized and investing in “equipping, enlarging, and modernizing America’s Armed Forces.” According to the PPI/DLC vision offered in With All Our Might, getting smart is mostly a matter of following through with what President George W. Bush says but doesn’t really do. Just because “Bush has paid it lip service” doesn’t mean that progressives and Democrats should give up “the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad . Advancing democracy is fundamentally the Democrats’ legacy, the Democrats’ cause, and the Democrats’ responsibility.”
But what does it mean to be a Democrat? That question was at the heart of the Democratic primary battle in Connecticut and is now reverberating throughout the country. For Lieberman and the DLC/PPI, the answer, at least in foreign policy issues, seems an echo of the neoconservative worldview that puts Israel and the United States at the center of a global war against evil (in the form of Islamic jihadism) and of a global crusade for democracy. In their May 17, 2006 “Fighting Smarter” essay in the DLC’s Blueprint magazine, Will Marshall and Jeremy Rosner assert that Democrats need a “new and better plan for victory” if they are to regain national leadership and that “the belief that America can best defend itself by building a world safe for individual liberty and democracy” should be central to that plan for victory.
Although Lieberman has recently attempted to distance himself from the president by calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign, the senator has been one of the leading supporters of the Iraq War. Lieberman has given a bipartisan patina to such neoconservative-led, pro-war, pro-Israel pressure groups and policy institutes as the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and the Committee on the Present Danger. In addition to Lieberman, one of the few Democratic Party members of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which was founded in 2002 to advocate a U.S. invasion of Iraq, was PPI president Will Marshall.
Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at PPI, has decried the grassroots opposition to Lieberman, calling Lamont supporters “nutroots” and “McGovernites with modems.” In his Bull Moose blog, Wittmann wrote that on the issue of national security the Democratic Party was “regressing back to the glory days of the early seventies. In their reflexive opposition to everything Bush, Democrats too often appear weak on fighting the war against jihadist terror.” Wittmann, who before joining PPI was Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s top deputy and before that was a chief legislative deputy at the Christian Coalition and a senior staff member at the Heritage Foundation, concluded: “The only jihad many in the left-wing in the party are interested in is the one against the party’s former vice presidential standard bearer.”
Whitman’s critique of anti-Lieberman Democrats resounds with neoconservatives, who in the late 1970s moved from the Democratic Party’s right to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, charging that the Democratic Party of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, and Walter Mondale had become a party of appeasers and “Blame America Firsters.” Writing in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, William Kristol opined: “What drives so many Democrats crazy about Lieberman is not simply his support for the Iraq War. It’s that he’s unashamedly pro-American” (August 14, 2006). In his editorial, “Anti-War, Anti-Israel, Anti-Joe,” Kristol goes on to suggest Lieberman’s choice to run as an Independent creates the possibility for “creating a broader and deeper governing party, with Lieberman Democrats welcomed into the Republican fold, just as Scoop Jackson Democrats became Reaganites in the 1980s.”
The DLC/PPI’s center-right, Republican-lite politics also face new challenges from Democrats concerned about trade deficits, job losses in manufacturing industries, and social irresponsibility of transnational corporations. The PPI and the DLC leadership have for many years worked to create a corporation-friendly, pro-globalization image of the Democratic Party.
PPI boasts that it has been a leading player in all of America’s recent international economic policy debates-from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the World Trade Organization, permanent Normal Trade Relations for China, African trade policy, financial crises, Trade Promotion Authority, reform of the American tariff system, and the economic dimensions of Middle East policy. In all cases, PPI and the DLC have backed increased economic integration, free trade, and other positions favored by corporate America and by former DLC chairman Lieberman, who has consistently and uncritically backed free trade agreements, most recently the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
PPI, which has a department dedicated to global economic issues, says it rejects “both the backlash against globalization on the left, and the nativism and unilateralism common on the right” and argues that “trade expansion and strong international economic institutions help build prosperity, encourage technological advance, and strengthen peace.”
Free trade Democrats are, however, increasingly finding it politically smarter to move their economic platforms to the left. Much to PPI/DLC’s chagrin, leading Democrats, including prominent DLC members such as Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), have joined a national campaign against the labor practices of global giant Wal-Mart. As a New York Times article noted: “Across Iowa this week and across much of the country this month, Democratic leaders have found a new rallying cry that many of them say could prove powerful in the midterm elections and into 2008: denouncing Wal-Mart for what they say are substandard wages and health care benefits” (August 17, 2006).
Striking a populist tone, Democrats are casting aside PPI/DLC warnings that smart politics means avoiding any appearance of being hostile to business or weak on security. Although new Democratic support for the campaign to improve Wal-Mart’s labor practices doesn’t necessarily mean that politicians like Bayh will vote down free trade agreements, there is an upsurge of criticism within both parties of free trade agreements that primarily benefit transnational corporations.
Matthew Rothschild, editor of Progressive magazine, wrote in a recent commentary that Lamont’s victory over Lieberman “signals the demise of the DLC” and “signals that Democrats will not abide by politicians who front for this war” (August 10, 2006).
For the past two decades, Lieberman and the DLC/PPI have gambled that the smart politics meant supporting militarism as the best path to national security and free trade as the best path to development. Lieberman’s defeat and the growing Democratic criticism of the Iraq War and corporate behavior indicate that so-called smart politics may no longer be the politics of supporting war and profiteering.
Tom Barry is the policy director of the International Relations Center, http://www.irc-online.org.