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Joe Lieberman & the Hostile Takeover of "Centrism"

05/30/2006 11:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In my new book Hostile Takeover, I spend a good deal of time showing how ultra-conservative right-wingers have hijacked the terms "centrist" and "mainstream" and disconnected them from what's actually "centrist" and "mainstream" among the public. This is no small matter (and a topic I have focused on before) - it is a hugely important and powerful linguistic weapon deviously employed by the most destructive forces. That's right - today in Washington, positions that are way to the right of where the American public stands are regularly called "centrist" or "mainstream." That's no accident - it is a deliberate strategy employed by Big Money interests that run the Establishment to effectively marginalize the vast majority of the population from its own political debate and political system. It is, in short, a hostile takeover not just of our government, but of political discourse itself.

How this semantic strategy legitimates right-wing positions and politicians can best be seen in looking at Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), a man incessantly billed by the Washington media - and himself - as a "centrist." In fact, Lieberman's name has become so synonymous with Washington's propagandistic definition of "centrism" that some of the most insulated Establishment spokespeople are using the term in a pathetic attempt to defend him from grassroots primary challenger Ned Lamont (D).

As just one example, take Marshall Wittman. This ultra-right-wing former Christian Coalition official is now employed at the Democratic Leadership Council, and purports to speak for Democrats. He is one of the most odious icons of Washington's bought-off bipartisan Establishment - and has made a name for himself peddling right-wing talking points, narratives and storylines wholly at odds with actual facts. Last week was no exception. He told the Los Angeles Times that the Connecticut primary "is a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party" because "it will have repercussions for the 2008 presidential campaign and whether centrists will feel comfortable within the Democratic Party."

Wittman, a staunch Lieberman shill, is actually correct, though inadvertently. He's right - this is "a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party" and it will indicate "whether centrists will feel comfortable within the Democratic Party." But the actual data shows that the centrist is not Lieberman, as Wittman purports, but those opposing Lieberman. And if Lieberman wins the primary, it could mean that centrists will not feel comfortable in the party, because the actual data shows Lieberman is the out-of-the-mainstream arch-right-winger, and the movement that is challenging him represents the real center.

This is not theoretical rhetoric or cocktail party chatter, as Wittman and his ilk in the pundit class have become specialists in peddling. This is cold, hard fact, backed up by cold, hard facts (you remember - those things so looked down upon inside the Beltway). On almost every major issue, the data shows that Lieberman is far to the right of the "center" or "mainstream" of American public opinion.

Take the Iraq War. Lieberman continues to unflinchingly support the stay-the-course policy of the Bush administration, to the point where he attacks those who even raise questions about the administration's Iraq policy as "undermin[ing] the president's credibility at our nation's peril." His out-of-the-mainstream position comes at a time when every major national poll shows roughly two thirds of Americans oppose the war and want a change in policy. But it gets worse. Lieberman has long claimed that because of the Iraq War, "the world is safer, America is safer." Again, CNN/USA Today polls asked this very question, and they have consistently shown (here and here) that the majority of Americans believe that the Iraq War has made America less safe. In sum, the cold, hard data shows that despite the rhetoric, Joe Lieberman is on the fringe extreme, while those like Ned Lamont who have criticized his position and who want a change in policy are the real centrists.

How about Social Security? Though Lieberman now desperately claims he's against privatizing Social Security, he was one of the earliest and most outspoken Senators giving credence to the concept - credence that was critical in helping legitimate the concept. As far back as 2000, the New York Times reported that Lieberman was publicly suggesting "that he could support allowing workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the private markets." Two 2002 polls - one from the Los Angeles Times and another from NBC News - both found a strong 55 percent of the public opposed the concept. After the President in 2005 put the full weight of the White House behind selling the concept in the most favorable terms possible, those numbers actually got worse. A CNN/USA Today poll that year found that "opposition rose to 59 percent." So, on yet another issue, the cold, hard data shows Lieberman was well outside the "center," those who criticized him for his position were representing the real center - and yet the out-of-touch Washington chattering classes still billed him as a "centrist" on the issue.

On health care, Lieberman was labeled a "centrist" by the Washington elite when he ran for President in 2004 for saying things like, "I am not willing to raise taxes to pay for health insurance." He said this the same year that, as polling expert Ruy Teixeira notes, major nationwide polls showed the public supports "by 67 percent to 26 percent, the U.S. government guaranteeing 'health insurance for all citizens,' even if that meant repealing most of 'recent tax cuts.'" In fact, "the majority was scarcely diminished (67 percent to 29 percent) by referring not to repealing tax cuts but more directly to 'raising taxes.'" Similarly, "Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Public Opinion Strategies found, in January 2004, a 69 percent to 28 percent majority saying that they would be willing to pay more per year in federal taxes to assure every American citizen received health care coverage." Again, the cold, hard data shows Lieberman is well outside the "center" on health care - while those who criticize him for these kinds of positions represent the actual center.

This pattern shows up even in the specifics of lower-profile issues. On prescription drugs, the Washington Post reported in 2000 that "Lieberman said he was opposed to price controls on drugs." That was the same year Lieberman, a recipeint of more than $400,000 in drug industry cash, voted against bipartisan legislation to reinstate the law that forces drug companies to offer drugs developed at taxpayer expense at a "fair and reasonable price" - instead of allowing them to charge Americans the highest prices in the world for those drugs. It was also the same year the Washington Post billed Lieberman a "centrist" for his work "lobb[ying] hard for pharmaceutical companies on issues [like extending] research and development tax credits."

Yet, polls show that a strong majority of the public supports drug price controls, and doesn't buy the argument that the already-wealthy drug industry needs federal handouts for R&D. Specifically, a 2004 Harris Poll found "60 percent to 35 percent majority to favor federal government price controls." In 2005, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation noted that polls showed "almost two-thirds of the public say there should be more government regulation of prescription drug prices, and 70% of these people continue to support more regulation of prices even it leads to less research and development of new drugs." Kaiser also noted that "Most of the public do not believe that research and development drive the cost of prescription drugs, instead three-quarters say drug company profit margins or marketing costs are the largest contributors to the price of prescription drugs and eight in ten say that drug costs are not justified because companies charge more for medications than necessary." Yet again, the data shows Lieberman's position has been way outside the "center" - while his critics have been representing the real center.

How about corporate-written trade deals? Lieberman remains one of the most rock-solid supporters of pacts like NAFTA, WTO and China PNTR that were stripped of labor/wage/human rights/environmental protections and thus undermined American jobs, wages, and benefits. He has attacked as - gasp! - "protectionist" anyone (even fellow Democrats) raising any questions about these trade deals. For this, Washington pundits fall all over themselves to call him a courageous "centrist."

Yet, polls consistently show that the centrist position is one that supports pushing for a serious change of these trade policies. To the shock and dismay of the bipartisan Washington Establishment that pushes these sellout trade deals, polls continue to show that a majority of Americans have long wanted this trade policy reformed. For instance, as I have previously pointed out, a July 2005 PIPA poll found 56 percent of Americans said they are "not satisfied with the way the US government is dealing with the effects of trade on American jobs, the poor in other countries and the environment" while 90 percent of Americans want trade deals to include strong labor protections and 93% want strong environmental protections - protections deliberately removed from the trade deals Lieberman champions. Similarly, a January 2004 PIPA/University of Maryland poll found that "a majority [of the American public] is critical of US government trade policy." USA Today reported in 2004 that even high-income Americans "have lost much of their enthusiasm for free trade." A March 2003 EPIC-MRA poll found just 21% of Americans said they wanted to "continue the NAFTA agreement." A 2002 poll by Investors Business Daily and the Christian Science Monitor found an overwhelming 61% of Americans "think U.S. trade policy should have restrictions on imported foreign goods to protect American jobs." And a 1999 poll done on the five-year anniversary of the North American trade deal was even more telling: Only 24 percent of Americans said they wanted to "continue the NAFTA agreement."

Again, Lieberman's trade position is cited as proof of his "centrism" when in fact the actual data shows his position is on the fringes of American public opinion.

The list goes on and on. Lieberman is called a "centrist" for reflexively voting for bigger and bigger Pentagon budgets. Yet, major national polls show the "centrist" position among the vast majority of the public is one that supports "deep cuts in defense spending, a significant reallocation toward deficit reduction, and increases in spending on education, job training, reducing reliance on oil, and veterans." Lieberman is called a "centrist" when he publicly brags about "co-sponsor[ing] the capital gains tax cut which finally passed in 1997." Yet, the same year he passed that tax cut for the wealthy, national polls showed that just 10 percent of Americans thought such a policy should be a priority for Congress. The dishonest labeling never seems to stop.

What can we learn from all of this? New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says we can see that in today's Washington "A Democrat is considered centrist to the extent that he does what Mr. Lieberman does: lends his support to Republican talking points, even if those talking points don't correspond at all to what most of the public wants or believes." Krugman is right - but as I document in my new book Hostile Takeover it goes even deeper. Washington's definition of "centrism" is not just about promoting those who capitulate to Republicans, but more broadly, those who genuflect to the Establishment and support the hostile takeover of our government.

No matter how far out on the fringe of public opinion you may be, you are billed as a "centrist, a "moderate" or "in the mainstream" in our nation's capital if you serve as a mouthpiece for powerful interests who bathe politicians in cash, lend your support to these interests' pet causes, perpetuate their dishonest agendas, and keep telling the public that the Establishment's goals are the public's goals - even when polls clearly shows they are not. This paradigm is everywhere. Lieberman keeps getting fawned over as a "moderate"; out-of-touch, war-mongering Beltway pundits are being lauded as supposedly tough "moderates"; and corporate-funded think tanks pushing extremist economic and foreign policy agendas are applauded by pundits as "moderate" saviors. The propaganda is ubiquitous - and it goes the other way, too.

That's right, in Washington, you are labeled "liberal," "extremist" or "outside the mainstream" if you actually challenge power, debunk dishonest agendas with facts, and remind the public that the Beltway is deliberately ignoring what the vast majority of Americans want from their government. Moveon still gets slandered as supposedly out of the mainstream for its opposition to the war - even though polls show the public is just as vehemently opposed to the war. The netroots is constantly harangued by Beltway pundits as ultra "liberal" - even though the positions it supports in trying to get the Democratic Party to actually stand up for ordinary citizens is right in the center of public opinion data.

Washington, in short, deliberately tries to marginalize forces of change by slandering those forces as outside the "center." That propaganda system, not surprisingly, selects for people who refuse to challenge power. This explains why we have so many unspectacular, mealy-mouthed, power-fearing politicians on both sides of the aisle in Congress (and also why there are more outspoken voices in statehouses where this propaganda system is less pronounced). But it also explains why there is so much anger at Washington brewing throughout the country. After so many years of Washington lying to people about what the "center" supposedly is, Americans are waking up. As a 2005 poll by the Feldman Group showed that a whopping 72 percent of Americans now "believe that elected officials in Washington do not see the nation's problems and opportunities in the same way they do."

That anger represents electoral opportunity for the political candidates like Ned Lamont and others who actually look at the data, reject the Beltway's B.S. and stand up for ordinary citizens. To be sure, doing that takes guts. Big Money interests have made an art out of eviscerating those who challenge them, and every pundit on the cocktail party circuit from Joe Klein to Tom Friedman to David Brooks has shown their eagerness to dishonestly attack populists that challenge the Establishment. But rest assured that despite all of this desperate hot air, the cold, hard data shows the public is ready to reward the real centrists - the people who have the guts to stand down the elitsts on the fringe and stand with the vast majority of America in the real mainstream center. That's the place that supports political leaders who dare to fight back against the hostile takeover.