Free Dartmouth
7/10/2006 03:15:00 PM | Timothy

Chait on Lamont vs. Lieberman and Bush vs. Bin Laden
TNR's Jon Chait writes on partisanship in the Connecticut primary and the nation:
Writing in the Hartford Courant, Marshall Wittmann and Steven J. Nider of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council complain that "far too many Democrats view George W. Bush as a greater threat to the nation than Osama Bin Laden."

Those loony Democrats! But wait, is this really such a crazy view? Even though all but the loopiest Democrat would concede that Bin Laden is more evil than Bush, that doesn't mean he's a greater threat. Bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the mountains, has no weapons of mass destruction and apparently very limited numbers of followers capable of striking at the United States.

Bush, on the other hand, has wreaked enormous damage on the political and social fabric of the country. He has massively mismanaged a major war, with catastrophic consequences; he has strained the fabric of American democracy with his claims of nearly unchecked power and morally corrupt Gilded Age policies. It's quite reasonable to conclude that Bush will harm the nation more--if not more than Bin Laden would like to, than more than he actually can.

This is what Lieberman and his backers don't understand. They piously insist that "partisanship stops at the water's edge" and that they won't take political potshots at a Republican president when he's waging a war in America's name--as if Bush were obeying this principle, and as if Bush were just another Republican president rather than a threat of historic magnitude. Lieberman seems to view the alarm with which liberals regard Bush as a tawdry, illegitimate emotion.

Chait goes on to say: "But if Lieberman's allies are irritating and often wrongheaded, alas, his enemies are worse." By "enemies" Chait primarily means the liberal bloggers, particularly those on, who support Ned Lamont's challenge against Lieberman in the Democratic primary. How exactly is kos "worse" than Lierberman? I suspect that Chait thinks that Kos is both more of a threat to good political outcomes than Lieberman, and that Kos is more evil than Lieberman in Chait's eyes. Chait has just shown us that the difference between threats and evil. This is interesting analysis, and seems it seems intuitive that it is plausible (note: I did not say that it is intuitive that it is correct) that Bush could be a greater threat than Bin Laden even though Bin Laden is more evil, if Bush can wreak more damage. But that depends on believing factual premises: either Bin Laden is not much of a threat, or Bush is really counterproductively screwing things up or both. Even a conservative who disagrees with these factual premises can still admit that someone who sees things otherwise is not necessarily saying that Bush is more evil than Bin Laden. As it happens, these are rather plausible factual premises (though perhaps this relies on a false sense of what will yet happen). Yet many conservatives still suspect leftists of thinking that Bush is more evil, not merely just more more of a threat, than Bin Laden. Conservatives might think that leftists believe than Bin Laden really isn't quite as bad as he seems. Similarly, many liberal bloggers reading Chait will think that Chait does not simply think that Kos is "worse" than Lieberman because Kos is more of a threat to electoral success; they think that Chait's sympathy for Lieberman in part comes from their shared support of the war.

The interesting thing is that Chait could with some consistency say that leftist bloggers are substantively better (more "good") than Lieberman, yet the liberal bloggers are more of a threat than Lieberman, because the blogger's strategy will not assure electoral success. This is consistent because Chait admits the plausibility of Bush being more of a threat relative to Bin Laden, despite Bin Laden being more evil. But Chait does not say that Kos is better. So what is Chait's accusation against Kos?
Moulitsas and many of his allies insist that they just want Democrats to win. But in fact, they believe that any deviation from the party line--except for a few circumscribed instances, such as Democrats running for office in red states--is an unforgivable crime. They have consigned large chunks of the center-left to enemy status. It is an odd way to go about building a majority.
There are two claims here. One is that this would be an odd way to build a majority. Is it? It is certainly counterproductive to punish candidates for being too conservative when they come from conservative and moderate districts. But Lieberman does not come from such a district, and bloggers know it. But I can see how it might be hard to make a correct analysis about how liberal a district actually is. So this might be a bad way to achieve a majority. But is this really what all liberal bloggers do? Chait's second claim is that, yes, it is. I'm not so sure that Kos and the gang punish all dissenters. It has even been said here on that Lieberman would not be in trouble had his tone been different; it is not his stance on the war per se, but precisely the "Democrats should not criticize the president" stance that bloggers might object to. That is, Kos and the bloggers could be "purging" all Democrats who claim that dissent negatively affects the war effort. Would Chait think that is a bad thing? Or does Chait think that Kos objects more to the substance of Lieberman's position? If so, he may be right, but he may also factually be wrong and should produce better evidence.

Chait is too clever here:
Well, OK, some anger is appropriate here. But doesn't this suggest that the whole Lamont crusade has sort of backfired? Although I'm no Karl Rove, it seems to me that turning a rock-solid Democratic seat into a potential Republican pickup represents something less than a political masterstroke. The whole anti-Lieberman blog campaign has a self-fulfilling quality: They charge that Lieberman isn't a Democrat, they drive him from the party, and they declare themselves to be correct. The more ex-Democrats they create, the more sure of their own virtue they become.
The reason I think this argument is potentially interesting is that it mirrors a liberal argument against Iraq being "a central front on the war on terror". Liberals correctly say that Iraq was not a central front before the invasion. If it is now, that is because of our actions. Bush created his own reality. Similarly, Chait seems to say that liberal bloggers will create a self-fulfilling prophecy whenever they challenge incumbants in a primary. Liberals should appreciate that this type of argument can be correct. But it is not always correct. Dynamic analysis is useful, but depends on empirical claims. I think that if Lieberman were not already half way out the door, a primary challenge would not have driven him more out the door. Why doesn't he just stay and fight? I also think that Chait is right that it would be stupid to challenge democrats if this makes it so a Republican can win. But bloggers correctly see that there is not much danger of that here, in this particular district. The more 'subtle' criticism is that this fight diverts resources and energy into a primary fight when we should be fighting the real enemy: Republicans, I suppose (again, the parallels in the war on terror are not hard to find). However, political activism is not like the military (and some Dartmouth Naderites in 2000): the energy put in by the bloggers would not have suddenly gone elsewhere. Resources and energy can be galvinized where it otherwise would not be. Finally, if we think in terms of political resources, one of the reasons to target Lieberman is that his attacking Democrats for criticizing Bush takes energy to combat. He provides cover for Bush's attacks.

Update: Chait responds to critics. I wish I had read this before pontificating so much above. Chait links to Digby's rant here.

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