For several years now, liberal eggheads have been having what seems like an important debate: Do they need "big ideas" like the conservative movement had during its long march to power? Serious-minded liberals launched what Democratic idea-broker Kenneth S. Baer calls "the battle of the battle of ideas," in which they argue about whether it's time to argue about important arguments.
Just this week, Baer and Andrei Cherny - founders of a new big-idea journal, "Democracy" - penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times calling for liberals to find new Big Ideas. In response to this effort, the New Republic's Jonathan Chait says - and I'm not making this up - "Ideas? Feh."
A more eloquent statement was posted on the liberal blog TPM Cafe: "The problem isn't getting people to believe in something - people can believe in anything. The problem is getting them to care." That captures the essence of liberalism's current plight. If it's not about emotions - caring, hating, feeling - it's about tactics. Big ideas have about as much animating force in liberal ranks today as Calvinism does at a porn studio.
Exhibit A is the liberal battle over Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's re-election. Lieberman, America's favorite Jewish uncle, is in the fight of his political life because limousine liberal Ned Lamont is challenging him in the Democratic primary. Oceans of ink and pixels have been devoted to explaining the factions behind this "civil war" on the left. Some paint it as the "netroots," or left-wing bloggers, versus the Washington establishment. Others talk of hawks vs. doves, or populists vs. elitists, the party line vs. independents, cats vs. dogs. ...
Alas, Chait has it right: "Feh."
For good or ill, there are no grand "big ideas" behind the anti-Lieberman cause. It's driven by a riot of passions, chiefly against President Bush and "his" war. Any ideas are mere afterthoughts and rationalizations used to gussy up animus as principle. Several Lamont supporters, also known as "Nedheads," have faulted Lieberman for such obscure transgressions as criticizing former President Bill Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Please. There was no lack of enthusiasm for Lieberman when the sainted Al Gore picked Joe as his running mate.
It's also nonsense to say this is about "the people" vs. "the establishment." Lieberman's a three-term junior senator. Ted Kennedy, scion of America's leading liberal dynasty, has been in the Senate 26 years longer. Is he not the establishment? Robert Byrd of West Virginia has been in the Senate since the mid-Jurassic period. That old, calcified chewing gum stuck underneath the establishment's chair? He put it there. But while Kennedy and Byrd (and Gore, Howard Dean, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton) outrank Lieberman in establishment credentials, they arouse little ire from the Net-mob because they say what the throng wants to hear. (Hillary is a slight exception.) "The establishment" is just code for "people we don't like."
The hawk-vs.-dove analysis has similar weaknesses. The netroots crowd is passionately antiwar, while Lieberman supports the war. But there are other Iraq war supporters whom the Democratic base hasn't targeted, such as Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who is also up for re-election.
Meanwhile, Lieberman claims that the war is the only thing distinguishing him from Lamont. That's not exactly right. Lieberman isn't only pro-war, he's seen as pro-Bush - a far greater sin. While the netroots crowd calls Lieberman "scum" and a "lying" this or that, its most damaging attack is a picture worth a thousand dirty words. It's of Bush kissing Lieberman on the cheek, and anti-Joe jihadists have posted it everywhere in the lefty blogosphere.
Hatred of Bush drives - or poisons - almost everything in liberal politics now. Chait himself wrote a bilious cover story for the New Republic in 2003 explaining why he hates everything, and I mean everything, about Bush. And just this week, Chait defended the proposition that Bush is a greater threat to the United States than Osama bin Laden because Bush has "wreaked enormous damage on the political and social fabric of the country" and has "strained the fabric of American democracy." And Chait is seen as a moderate by the Daily Kos crowd.
But hatred of Bush is just one side of the coin. The other is this bizarre, almost pathetic yearning for Democratic self-esteem. It was amazing how much of the rhetoric from the recent Daily Kos convention in Las Vegas was about standing up, fighting back and feeling proud to be Democrats.
This liberal-pride crowd likes "fighting Dems," and open expression of Bush hatred is the litmus test for whether you're a fighting Dem. You can be a moderate, like Virginia Senate hopeful Jim Webb or former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, or a flaming liberal, like Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, and that's fine as long as you'll stand up and fight and refuse to take this (expletive deleted) from that (expletive deleted) anymore. In fact, you can believe anything you want. You don't actually have to have big ideas. The important part is that you care.