After the 2002 election debacle, in which Democrats reversed historical patterns and actually lost ground in an election where they were supposed to gain it, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., immediately summed up his party's problem.
"This Republican-lite Democratic Leadership Council approach is a loser," explained Feingold, who makes no secret of his disdain for the corporation-funded Democratic group that has worked to move the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to the right. "There are millions of Americans who want an alternative to the Republicans on issues of trade, foreign policy and many other issues. But in too many contests, Democrats are not offering voters that alternative."
Over time, all of the contenders for the party's 2004 Democratic presidential nomination have come to the conclusion that Feingold reached. Except one.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman continues to complain that the party is too liberal. In a speech Monday to the National Press Club, where he tried to renew his crumbling candidacy, Lieberman warned Democrats not to vote their principles.
"I share the anger of my fellow Democrats with George Bush and the direction he has taken this nation. But the answer to his outdated, extremist ideology is not to be found in the outdated extremes of our own," Lieberman told reporters. "That path will not solve the challenges of our time and could send us back to the political wilderness for years to come."
Lieberman could not be more wrong. Democrats were consigned to the political wilderness in 2002 not because they were too liberal but because too many party leaders chose to follow Lieberman into the Bush administration's orbit on issues such as war and peace, the USA Patriot Act and corporate welfare bailouts for the airline industry. While Republican turnout rose in 2002, Democratic turnout slackened. A quick analysis of the results led most Democrats - from presidential prospects to grass-roots activists - to recognize that any further fuzzing of the margins between the parties in 2004 would be disastrous. So it comes as no surprise that the greatest applause line on the campaign trail has been former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's pledge to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
While all the other candidates are trying to pick up on Dean's call to arms - with varying degrees of success - Lieberman continues to preach a Republican-lite line that is so out of touch with political realities on the ground in America that it inspires laughter at Democratic gatherings. Lieberman thinks he is in a fight for the future of the Democratic Party, but the truth is that he has already lost that fight. As Donna Brazile, the manager of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign, explained to the Washington Post in May, "The bottom line is, he is defined as a conservative U.S. senator."
Lieberman disputes that definition, but his continued defense of the war with Iraq and his refusal to back off his support for Wall Street's free trade agenda has pegged him in the minds of many Democrats as a candidate who is way out of step with a party that questions the war and complains about the loss of more than 2 million manufacturing jobs in recent years.
For most Democrats who will play a pivotal role in the early caucuses and primaries, it is not Dean, John Kerry or Dennis Kucinich who represent what Lieberman describes as "the discredited example of our party at its worst." It is Lieberman, himself.
Harry Truman warned that, when given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat imitating a Republican, voters would not hesitate to vote for the real thing. And, with his support for the Bush administration's agenda on foreign policy and trade - fundamental issues not just for Democratic activists but for millions of disenchanted citizens who need to be drawn to the polls if the Democratic nominee is to prevail in November 2004 - Lieberman has positioned himself as precisely the pale imitation of Bush that grass-roots Democrats fear will doom them to a repeat of 2002.
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