This week, America's most powerful political duo - Bill and Hillary Clinton - struggled to navigate the sea change that is transforming America's politics. As Senator Clinton unveiled the "American Dream Initiative" of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council on Monday, her husband was traveling to Connecticut to try to fend off the DLC's worst nightmare - Ned Lamont's primary challenge to DLC stalwart Sen. Joe Lieberman.
The Washington gatekeepers have been apoplectic about Lamont, the millionaire businessman, who threatens to unseat Lieberman, an 18-year incumbent, in his own party's primary. The DLC calls it an attempted "purge." David Brooks terms it a liberal "inquisition." Lanny Davis, the Clintons' self-appointed mouthpiece, fulminates against the bloggers -- "demonizing, hating, virulent, character assassinating left of the Democratic Party" - who have lined up behind Lamont.
In fact, Lamont poses a principled challenge to the policies and politics championed by Lieberman and the Democratic Leadership Council. His candidacy is fueled by the fundamental issue of Iraq - the worst foreign policy debacle in our lifetimes. Lieberman called for the invasion even before Sept. 11. He is the president's favorite Democrat, providing an "amen" chorus for every presidential lie, promise and exaggeration. To this day, he looks at an Iraq where 100 people are being murdered a day and sees the promising creation of a "new democracy." Not surprisingly Connecticut Democrats, who overwhelmingly oppose the occupation, are attracted by a challenger who wants the U.S. troops to come home.
But this is not a one-issue campaign, and Lieberman is not a one-issue Republican knock-off. Rather, he personifies the DLC's policy of pushing off Democrats and capitulating to the Right.
As DLC Chair in the mid-1990s, he argued that most Americans "believe that Republicans are at least headed in the right direction," as opposed to "too many Democrats." Lieberman peddled the corporate trade deals that have decimated U.S. manufacturing and left the country with the worst trade deficits and foreign indebtedness in the annals of time. He championed off-the-books, short-term corporate stock options that gave CEOs a personal multimillion dollar incentive to cook the books, contributing to the worst corporate scandals since the Robber Barons. He supported capital gains tax cuts, and chided Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for suggesting that some of Bush's top-end tax cuts should be rolled back. He's consistently voted for raising military spending, even as the U.S. spends nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. He called for privatizing Social Security. He voted for limiting the rights of victims to recover from corporate negligence - so-called tort reform.
Similarly, on social issues, Lieberman has consistently danced with the Right. He scorned affirmative action as "un-American." He supports using public money for private school vouchers. He joined with Ralph Reed then with the Christian Coalition to create a coalition to champion prayer in public schools. He opposed a filibuster against the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito, the ideologue who has added a reliable vote to the extreme Scalia-Thomas wing of the Court. He even joined Tom DeLay's Republicans in the shameless political posturing around Terry Schaivo's tragedy.
And Lieberman personifies the DLC's political strategy - trading pro-corporate votes for political contributions that racked up $6 million for his campaign war chest. In this race, Lieberman has received 80 percent of his contributions from outside of Connecticut, a large portion from corporate PACs. That kiss that George Bush bestowed on his "favorite Democrat" last year was priceless.
But it may also cost him his seat. His challenger Ned Lamont's candidacy is fueled by the new grassroots energy in the Democratic Party - a progressive movement of increasing sophistication. It can raise millions in small donations from the Web for its champions - Lamont has over 20,000 contributors, although he has the wealth to fund his own campaign. These new progressives are tired of losing elections and sick of Democrats who duck and cover, rather than challenging the Right. And that movement reflects the growing majority of Americans who are looking for a dramatically different direction in our politics - seeking bold changes in foreign and domestic policies that increasingly don't work for them.
Hillary's American Dream Initiative - a series of earnest, if generally modest, proposals - tries to navigate those currents. It is endorsed by a gaggle of institutes run by former Clintonistas - the DLC, the Progressive Policy Institute, the New Democratic Network, the Third Way, the Center for American Progress - proving that Hillary at least can unite the fractious New Democrats, if not the Democratic Party. It omits mention of the Iraq War or foreign policy. It tiptoes around America's failed global economic strategy. It focuses on areas where Democrats agree - making college affordable, expanding access to health care, home ownership, retirement security. It drops the old DLC swagger - embracing an increase in the minimum wage that the DLC once disdained. Its proposals on college affordability have the scope to make a difference. Its "Baby Bonds" - a $500 savings bond at birth and at age ten for low-income families - could be politically attractive.
But otherwise it is characteristically cautious. Its health care proposals would do nothing for most uninsured Americans and little to control prices. It says nothing about empowering workers to organize and little about holding CEOs accountable. It skimps on any investment agenda, while promising to don a permanent budgetary straight jacket. It fails to call for either fundamental tax reform or rolling back any of Bush's top end tax cuts, while offering up a bushel of new tax credits and write offs.
And while Hillary omits mention of the war in her American Dream agenda, the DLC continues to champion the Iraq nightmare -- most recently calling for putting the economy on a war footing, raising the military budget and rallying the Americans for an extended commitment to nation-building in Iraq and transforming the Middle East.
The Lamont challenge to Lieberman suggests the limits of these politics. The August 8 primary in Connecticut is now a tossup. Lieberman, preemptively declaring himself a sore loser, has announced he'll run as an independent if he loses the primary. But whether Ned Lamont wins or loses, it is clear that he represents a rising tide in American politics - a growing progressive movement ready to ignore the gatekeepers; shed the timid, accommodating positioning represented by the DLC; and eager to pose bold new ideas for America's future. Some of the proposals in Hillary's American Dream Initiative will contribute to that, but she'll have to swim a lot faster and reach a lot farther if she hopes to catch the coming wave of progressive change.