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Lieberman, Harman and Vanishing Democratic Moderates

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Political pundits of a certain stripe have been lamenting the disappearance of Republican moderates for years. It's time now to lament the disappearance of moderate Democrats.

Last month, Sen. Joseph Lieberman announced he wouldn't seek re-election. He lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut in 2006 because of his support of the Iraq war, but won in November as an independent.

The irony was that the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president was re-elected largely by Republicans who spurned their party's little-known nominee. But Republicans seem likely to field a stronger candidate in 2012, leaving Lieberman little room in the middle.

Then last week, Rep. Jane Harman announced she would resign soon to become head of Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center. Harman, who voted for the Iraq war resolution and supported robust foreign and defense policies, was conspicuously passed over by Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee when Democrats won control of the House in 2006.

Harman's Los Angeles beach-town seat is heavily Democratic, and as one of the richest members of Congress she could self-finance her campaigns. But she won her 2010 Democratic primary over a left-wing opponent by 59 percent to 41 percent -- a narrow majority for longtime incumbents who usually win by two to one.

Harman and Lieberman were both Democrats in the JFK and FDR mold -- liberal on most domestic issues (Lieberman almost single-handedly pushed through repeal of the ban on open gays in the military in December) and supporters of the use of American military power to expand freedom and democracy in the world. But there doesn't seem to be much room for them in the Democratic Party today.

Last week also saw the announcement that the Democratic Leadership Council would close its doors, after the retirement of its longtime president, Al From, in 2009. From, an aide to Louisiana Rep. Gillis Long, founded the DLC in 1985 in the wake of Ronald Reagan's two victories, in which he won the electoral vote by 1,014 to 62.

The DLC championed policies, notably welfare reform, intended not to expand government but to make it work better. It gave early national prominence to a young governor of Arkansas, of whom From used to say, "Clinton really gets it."

After the 1988 election, Democratic leaders, fundraisers and voters were convinced that old-time liberals could not win and were ready to take a chance on Clinton. And aside from the debacle of Hillarycare, he delivered. Democrats lost five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. They have carried the popular vote in four of the five held since.

But over the last decade, satisfaction with the political successes of Clinton-type governance were replaced by rage against the works and deeds of George W. Bush. That rage seemed vindicated when Democrats won congressional majorities in 2006 and when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 with a larger percentage of the popular vote than any Democratic nominee except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

The political philosopher James Carville wrote a book predicting Democratic dominance for 40 years. Daily Kos bloggers, spewing hatred, argued that the party could afford to purge the likes of Joe Lieberman and Jane Harman and the Blue Dog Democratic moderates in the House. Better off without them!

Maybe not. Of the 53 blue dogs in the 111th Congress, only 26 (including Harman) were re-elected in 2010. Another 21 were defeated for re-election, and all six Blue Dogs who retired were replaced by Republicans. If Democrats had held those 27 seats, they would still have a majority in the House.

For years now, Republican voters have disregarded the pundits urging them to nominate moderates, and practically the only Republican moderates left in Congress are Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. And it's notable that Brown won his upset victory early last year not by stressing his liberal stands on cultural issues but his opposition to Obamacare.

The constituencies targeted by moderate Republican strategists -- labor union members, high-income professionals, Jewish voters -- have grown smaller or have become heavily Democratic. Republicans have been able to win without them.

The constituencies targeted by DLC strategists -- Southern whites, urban ethnics, blue collar workers -- are growing or are not shrinking as much, and at least in 2010 they voted heavily Republican. It's not so clear that Democrats can win without them.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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