Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd January 2008
Yesterday, Steve Benen evaluated the charge that Barack Obama uses so-called “right wing memes” — Social Security in crisis and so forth. Benen had the amusing idea of grading Obama with a score measured in “Liebermans” — “5 Liebermans for the most annoying use of conservative frames, 1 Lieberman for the least annoying.”
Benen’s measure was even better than he acknowledged — because he missed one of the biggest “Liebermans” of all on the audacious one’s scorecard: Obama’s endorsement of Lieberman in the bitterly contested 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary with Ned Lamont. According to the March 31, 2006 Boston Globe, Obama told a Jefferson and Jackson Dinner gathering in Hartford, Connecticut:
The fact of the matter is, I know some in the party have differences with Joe. I’m going to go ahead and say it … I am absolutely certain Connecticut is going to have the good sense to send Joe Lieberman back to the U.S. Senate so he can continue to serve on our behalf,” he said.
This wasn’t when Lamont’s challenge was off the radar screen, either; the report says that “legions” of both Lieberman and Lamont supporters attended the dinner, and that Obama called Lieberman’s shrunken stature among Democrats “the elephant in the room.”
Like Benen, I think it’s reasonable to shrug off one or the other or even several of the items he mentioned, even if I’d grade Obama a little tougher than Benen did on some of them (especially the business about the SEIU 527 ads being the work of a “special interest” akin to any other). But like Digby, I think the political pattern Obama is making is relatively clear: at least his rhetoric is calculated “sistah souljah”-ing of the Democratic base, in a bid for the alleged center. And the Lieberman endorsement in the heat of a primary campaign suggests this tendency goes farther than rhetoric.
It wasn’t an isolated event, either. Obama also gave his support in the 2006 primary season to the centrist Democrat (and eventual general election loser) Tammy Duckworth in the IL-6 campaign over the prior nominee, Christine Cegelis — who nearly won the primary anyway, and who had won 44% of the vote against Henry Hyde in the far tougher 2004 election. Obama explained his intervention to David Sirota with a laconic “There are going to be strategic questions about who do I think is best equipped to win the general elections.”
OK, but then there are also going to be strategic questions for the rest of us about who we think is best equipped to make those judgments. (The voters of Connecticut and Illinois, perhaps?) At any rate, what business it was of Obama’s — who had earlier professed an aversion to “kingmaker” status — to be be tipping the scales in primary elections? Most to the point of tonight’s Democratic caucuses, do we want a Democratic presidential nominee whose idea of political wisdom was to tip those scales against progressives like Cegelis or Lamont?
There’s a lot that’s good about Obama — see the prior post for his views on executive power, for example. But there’s something very annoying about endorsing someone like Lieberman, too. Sirota’s “The Nation” article is a skeptical but fair profile of Obama in 2006, and it’s worth dusting off. Sirota wrote:
Obama is … not opposed to structural changes at all. However, he appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. [...]
Obama’s deference to these boundaries was hammered home to me when our discussion touched on the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Obama said the progressive champion was “magnificent.” He also gently but dismissively labeled Wellstone as merely a “gadfly,” in a tone laced with contempt for the senator who, for instance, almost single-handedly prevented passage of the bankruptcy bill for years over the objections of both parties. … I understood why Beltway publications and think tanks have heaped praise on Obama and want him to run for President. It’s because he has shown a rare ability to mix charisma and deference to the establishment. [...]
Obama will often be a reliable liberal vote, and he can give one hell of a speech. But we should believe him when he downplays our expectations.
I suspect reservations like these are too late and too insubstantial for many Obama supporters. I had a discussion with a dear relative over the holidays about Obama, in particular about his Social Security in crisis talk. As we reviewed my post about it, my relative argued that Obama was caught off guard by the National Journal and Meet the Press interviews involved, that other Democrats were simply looking for reasons to oppose Obama, and that Social Security may well need fixing, even if he usually defers to Paul Krugman on such issues.
In other words, he wasn’t changing his mind. What if, he said, you find someday that Social Security is on the rocks — won’t you regret not supporting Obama now? At the time I said I thought there were far more pressing problems on our to-do list right now: Medicare, health care, Iraq. But now I wish I’d remembered the Lieberman endorsement and said what “if” you find a so-called Democratic weasel like Joe Lieberman in the Senate — or worse, in an Obama administration? How will you feel then? It’s a measure of my own forgetfulness — and Obama’s political skills — that I didn’t.
NOTES: Benen item via eRobin (“fact-esque”). The Digby (“hullabaloo”) post “Partisan Soljahs” was from 12/10/07.
EDIT, 1/3: Links documenting Lieberman’s weaselhood added.
EDIT, 1/4: Link to prior post added.
UPDATE, 1/10: Ned Lamont endorses Obama. (Lieberman still in U.S. Senate.)