08/09/2006 04:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice. And Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue--Barry Goldwater

A Happy Day After Lieberman Lost Day to All!

In the run up to the Connecticut primary, and now the responses to it, I keep seeing Joe Lieberman referred to as "a moderate." Here, for example, is the generally liberal and intelligent E. J. Dionne in the August 8th Washington Post.

"There is, in any event, a major flaw in the claim that Lieberman's troubles reflect an end to the role of moderates in the Democratic Party: Lieberman is the one prominent moderate to receive serious opposition in this year's primaries."

The fact of Lieberman's moderation isn't all that obvious and transparent to me so I've been trying to put the man and the epithet together.

It is generally accepted among people who think about language that words are defined by usage; which is to say, they mean what the people who use them want them to mean. So, my quibble about the moderation of the former Democrat from Connecticut is not a matter of correcting a malapropism. Rather I just want to think a bit about how the word "moderate" has come to be used and what its use with respect to Lieberman tells us about the current state of language and politics.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary our adjective "moderate" comes from moderatus, the past participle of the Latin verb moderari: to manage, regulate, rule, guide, govern, direct. So, Cicero, reading the Washington Post, might expect Lieberman to be: managed, regulated, ruled, governed and directed. He might even be amused by the implication that it was up to the unmanaged, unregulated, unruled, unguided, ungoverned and undirected, to find or not find a role for the moderate Lieberman. After all, Rome had a senate too.

In modern usage "moderate" has come to mean a variety of things. Here's a dictionary version of the meaning Dionne most likely had in mind: "Of persons or their opinions: not strongly partisan; not radical or extreme. (Chiefly in context of politics or religion.)" (OED 2b.).

Notice that this definition is cast as a negative. We know a moderate by what he or she isn't. Both the ancient and modern uses of the word reflect the central concept of Aristotle's ethics of the golden mean. For Aristotle virtue is generally located at the midpoint of a continuum that runs from too little to too much. For example, a man or woman who runs in terror from a mouse has a defect of courage. But someone who needlessly picks a fight with a lion, has an excess of courage. The mouse-fearing person's courage deficit is cowardice. But the lion-irritator's excess of courage is fool-hardiness. Courage is most virtuous only when exhibited in the proper degree--as when one fights a lion because the fight cannot be avoided. Immoderate courage is courage ungoverned by reason. The ancients put a lot of emphasis on self-possession, and another English word for this classical sort of moderation is temperance.

So, wherein lies Joe Lieberman's moderation? Was his attack on Bill Clinton temperate? Was his preoccupation with video-game violence well-regulated? When he supported federal intervention to force feed Terry Schiavo did he moderately subordinate his own beliefs to those of his constituents? Is relentless support of the insurance and pharmaceutical interests that financially support him well-guided; or might it be an excess of loyalty, or, even a timorous defect of courage? Loyalty is a virtue, but to whom is Joe Lieberman loyal? Not the Democratic Party that put him 500,000 popular votes on the sunny-side of the Vice Presidency. Not the registered Democrats of Connecticut whose votes instruct him to step aside. Joe Lieberman, it appears, is immoderately loyal to Joe Lieberman.

Here's a different perspective. The United States, unlike many other nations, is not united by vague and malleable tradition, homogeneous ethnicity or geographical accident. It was united, in its present form, in a specific historical moment through the ratification of a written constitution:

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

In a material way, we continue to be united as a nation in and through our (sometimes imperfect) adherence to this written document. Like the word "moderate," the words "President" and "Senator" have Latin roots and precedents. But, for us, in the United States, their meanings are fixed by the constitution, which not only formally defines the qualifications for, and the privileges and responsibilities of, these offices but also legislative and judicial procedures for modifying them should the need arise.

It is clear from the preamble that the purpose of this document is to manage, regulate, rule, guide, govern, direct--that is to moderate--our civil society. However, George Bush and company have shown nothing but scorn for the Constitution and the rule of law it establishes. They have, in fact, articulated a counter-constitutional theory of government, which they have named "the unitary executive," and which, were it to prevail, would substitute the will of the President for constitutionally established laws and procedures.

Two cases in point: In the (strangely short-lived) debate following the exposure of the administration's warrentless wiretapping, the President and his enablers presented the clear language of the fourth amendment--

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

--as somehow superseded by Article II section 2, which names the President, as "commander and chief," presuming to edit the constitution in a peculiarly self-serving (that is willful) way. The sentence in question reads: "The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States." One doesn't need to be a constitutional lawyer to see what this means. The President commands the military and is responsible for its conduct. Moreover, everything after the "of" is clearly restrictive. It is there to specify of what the president is commander and chief, which means, by implication, that he is not commander and chief of anything not specified. When using this clause to justify its clears violation of the fourth amendment, the Bush minions simply shortened it to "The President shall be commander and chief." Allowing that reading to stand would functionally establish martial law. It is not a moderate assertion. It is a radical undermining of the rule of law as set forth in the written document that makes us a nation.

The second case in point brings me back to Lieberman's presumed moderation. Article 1 section 8 of the Constitution enumerates powers reserved to the legislature. It's a long list. The eleventh enumerated power is: "To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water." It is presumably in deference to this clause that the administration asked Congress to authorize the president

"To use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq, and (2) enforce all relevant United Nation Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

Lieberman, along with 76 other senators and 296 members of the house, voted for this resolution--not to declare war as the constitution obliges them to, but to delegate their authority to the executive it enjoins them to restrain.

So who were the moderates on that day? The substantial majority who abdicated a responsibility enjoined by the very document that creates and defines the positions of Senator and Congressman or the minority who did not? One might go further. If conservatives are those who wish to conserve the established rule, Senator Lieberman voted with the radicals when he voted to let the President substitute his will and judgment for constitutionally prescribed legislative action.

As Dionne points out, there is more to Lieberman's rejection by the voters than his vote on the war. The other Democrats who voted with him have not suffered the same rejection. Now that an ocean of blood has flowed under this particular abridgement of the law, those others have at least become cautious about continuing to enable and abet the unprecedented expansion of executive power under the current administration, while the astonishingly self-centered former Democrat from Connecticut continues to preen himself on his congenial relations with the murderers of American democracy.

The Middle East is burning; the globe is warming; the dollar is in the tank and real wages keep falling. The Democratic Party is just beginning to take significant steps to represent the two thirds of the electorate that disapprove of George Bush. It stands a real chance to regain control of the Congress and begin to manage, direct, guide and regulate our out-of- control executive. But it appears that only Joe Lieberman is on Joe Lieberman's mind. I'd call that an immoderate excess of self-regard.