Dead Dem Walking

As any Mafia watcher knows, when a family member commits an act of betrayal, out of self-interest, stupidity, jealousy or greed, eventually he must pay the price. And since the betrayer is family, any Sopranos or Godfather fan will tell you, justice may take years and the timing and location must be well-planned. Luckily for Joe Lieberman, politics is less violent than the mob, but for Joe, the time has come. And while most progressives want his head for support of the Bush administration's Iraq war, his true betrayal was far more devastating and happened a long time ago.

The night was Oct. 5, 2000. The night the Democrats lost the 2000 election. The night that every Democratic fault of the last 20 years -- timidity, naiveté, chumminess with power, lack of emotion and policy wonkishness -- was on full view. The night when Joe Lieberman betrayed his party and his country by choosing to protect his self-image as a gentlemanly politician, instead of warning America that the man sitting across the table was a dangerous and unprincipled man. The night when Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman had their one and only prime-time debate for vice president of the United States.

Joe Lieberman knew. It was the only night that Americans were going to see, hear or learn about Dick Cheney. And while Dick Cheney had a long career in Washington -- 11 years in Congress, secretary of defense for the first President Bush and chief of staff for Gerald Ford -- to the man on the street he was a blank page.

Joe Lieberman knew. Anyone who was anyone in Washington knew. There was a long record of controversial votes, private sector decisions, and neocon policy papers from which Joe could have chosen. During the first Bush administration, Cheney and his neocon gang were even known as "the crazies" around the Beltway. We have now seen the results.

Joe Lieberman knew. It has always been the traditional role of the vice presidential candidate to wield the hatchet and keep the presidential candidate above the fray. It was Joe's job to go for the jugular -- especially in light of Dick Cheney's' cleverly constructed persona as the grandfatherly, unassumingly reasonable old man. Dick's low-key style concealed a ruthless, uncompromising, hard-edged conservative. It was absolutely essential to Gore, the campaign and viewers at home that Joe stand on his chair and shout to the rafters that Dick Cheney was a dangerous man.

But Joe was only thinking about Joe. And nothing is more important to Joe than to show the world what a reasonable, mature, thoughtful and gentlemanly politician he is.

Revisiting that night is to relive a left-of-center political nightmare. The press was in major sucker mode and celebrated the "civilized" proceedings. AP characterized the night as a "gentlemanly debate of campaign understudies." Jack Tapper at Salon.com said "two candidates show their younger bosses how to keep it clean." The San Francisco Chronicle called the debate a "civil and cerebral conversation." Translation -- total victory for the Bush campaign and not even a paper cut for Dick Cheney. Thanks, Joe.

It's not surprising that Joe Lieberman has been defended of late by David Brooks of the New York Times. In a recent column on the "liberal inquisition" of Joe Lieberman, David describes Joe as a "heterodox politician who distrusts ideological purity, who rebels against movement groupthink, who believes in bipartisanship both as a matter of principle and as a practical necessity."

But I have a different categorization for David and his pal Joe. They are not "heterodox" -- they are "rational elitists." A "rational elitist" revels in the gray area and the long view, sees both sides of virtually every issue, never gets angry enough to "blow his or her top," hates shouting and recognizes, as the mature and wise fellows they know they are, that compromise and slow change are the realities of the world. They are "elitists" because their acute self-knowledge, wise and thoughtful ways allow them to continually look down on those of us who just can't seem to control our anger and frustration at the injustice, greed and moral compromises we see around us.

Twenty million working poor? David says the economy is doing just fine, thank you. Wal-Mart? While I may fume every time I think of the five $20 billion Walton heirs walking past an employee with no health insurance, a "rational elitist" like David Brooks sees a booming business and marvels at all of the good products Wal-Mart sells. Forty million uninsured? Heck, in the Middle Ages no one had health insurance. So Joe Lieberman finds a way to cozy up to the big pharmaceutical companies.

Rational elitists are never poor, so they can take the long view because they have health insurance, good paying jobs and probably don't have many personal friends dying in Iraq. It is not their life that is being destroyed. Of course, compromise is necessary and things take time to change, but just as every conspiracy theorist sees the world through a prism of paranoia, the rational elitist is pathologically committed to the finding the middle ground, the bipartisan approach and the long view.

So Joe doesn't see the corruption of his Washington political bedfellows and institutions. When he looks around the Senate chamber he sees a roomful of reasonable men, making reasonable compromises in an imperfect world. It is no coincidence that one of the rare times Joe did actually get all "hot-and-bothered" was not over stem cell research, earmarks, campaign-finance reform or the minimum wage -- it was Bill Clinton's sexual escapades. It makes perfect sense really -- because Bill was giving Democratic politicians a less than holy image -- and self-image comes first and foremost to Joe. For Joe, being the gentleman trumps all.

So on that fateful night in October, when debate host Bernard Shaw asked about racial profiling, Joe could have used his time to talk about the Republican Party's long history of capitalizing on racism and Dick Cheney's horrendous Congressional record on race -- from his characterizing Nelson Mandela and the ANC as a terrorist organization to his vote against a holiday for Martin Luther King.

When Bernard Shaw asked about public education, Joe could have reminded the public Dick Cheney voted against creating the Department of Education and Head Start. When asked about the American working woman, Joe could have reminded viewers Dick voted against the Equal Rights Amendment, and when asked about the RU-486 drug, Joe could have reminded viewers Dick Cheney was so extreme on abortion he even opposed federal funding for abortions in the case of rape and incest! But not our Joe.

It went on and on. He let Dick off the hook on the environment by failing to mention Cheney opposed the refunding of the Clean Water Act. Joe's only comments about Halliburton was about Dick's salary, and nothing was said about Cheney's Congressional vote against legislation requiring birth defects caused by oil and chemical companies be placed in the public record. The "well" that Joe could have drawn from was very, very deep. The public heard none of it. At one point in the debate, our "rational elitist" recites a long list of Republicans he has worked with over the years, ending with the prophetic "If I go on much longer, I'm going to get in trouble with my own party".

Here is David Brooks recently on Joe Lieberman -- "Whether you agree with him or not, he is transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men." Here is Joe Lieberman on Dick Cheney on Oct. 5, 2000 -- "I have great respect for Dick Cheney. I don't agree with a lot of things he said in this campaign, but I have great respect for him. He was a distinguished secretary of defense. And I don't have anything negative to say about him."

Rational elitists just don't get it. For those fawning words alone Joe, you just gotta go.

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