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The Dem Center Fights Back

By Tom Bevan

Over the last three years or so there's been a rather open, internecine brawl taking place in the Democratic Party between the antiwar Internet left and the establishment centrists. The flashpoint of this battle was the invasion of Iraq, but it is all part of a larger struggle about whether Democratic foreign policy in the post-September 11 world is going to be dictated by the hawkish or dovish influences within the party. So far, the antiwar left wing has gotten the better of the argument, largely because as the war has dragged into its fourth year even many centrists in the Democratic party have now concluded that Iraq was either a mistake or, at best, a questionable policy that has been badly botched by the Bush administration.

In some ways this rise is counterintuitive, since the darling of the antiwar Internet left (Howard Dean) flamed out quite fabulously in the 2004 primary and the crowd failed to put John Kerry over the top despite a Herculean effort. In fact, the "netroots" movement has yet to claim a single electoral victory of any significance - notwithstanding all the hype, money and endorsements they've showered on more than a dozen candidates in the past few years.

But the Internet left has made a few important strategic gains. It successfully upset the establishment apple cart by helping Howard Dean win the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2005. It also succeeded in laying down the antiwar marker in 2004 (despite the fact Kerry tried to finesse the issue of Iraq in the general election) and has since made gains in making opposition to the war part of liberal orthodoxy. In particular, Senators who have recanted support for the war (John Edwards and John Kerry) have been welcomed back into the fold while those who have not (Joe Lieberman, Maria Cantwell and Hillary Clinton) are being threatened and/or ostracized.

This week, however, the Democratic centrists started fighting back.

In the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, Jonathan Chait, senior editor for the center-left intellectual magazine The New Republic, took left-wing Internet activists to task for mounting a primary challenge to Senator Joe Lieberman. Chait characterized the group as "a pack of crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals" and then said the following about the move to drive Lieberman out of the party:

"the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman's sins. It's a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent. Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them."

Coincidentally, on the same day Chait's article appeared, the Washington Post published an op-ed by one of the leaders of the "new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party," Markos Moulitsas, who blasted Hillary (and Bill, and the DLC centrist philosophy in general) for lacking leadership and being part of the Washington "establishment."

But this, too, drew a stinging rebuke from centrist Marshall Wittmann, the former Communications Director for John McCain who backed John Kerry in 2004 and is now a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Wittmann wrote:

"Mr. Moulitsas is complaining about Hillary Clinton's centrism and that she isn't leading with big ideas. Well, here's a big idea that Hillary is taking the lead on that deeply rankles Mr. Moulitsas and his blogosphere buddies - she's tough on national security. That is the same reason that they are trying to run Joe Lieberman out of the party. Hillary has demonstrated courage in the face of the left wing fever swamp by refusing to reverse her position on Iraq and standing firm against Iran obtaining nukes."

Wittmann finished cutting the antiwar Internet left down to size by concluding, "these netroots types think they are something cutting edge when they are merely McGovernites with modems."

On Tuesday, centrists made an even bigger show of force with an event at the National Press Club to publicize a new book put out by the Progressive Policy Institute and edited by its director, Will Marshall. Titled "With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty," the book is a collection of 19 essays by top Democratic foreign policy and national security experts.

Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, both DLC centrists and possible 2008 presidential candidates, spoke at the event on Tuesday. While the two offered plenty of sharp criticism of the Bush administration's foreign policy, their message to the party could not have been clearer: Democrats must reclaim the aggressive foreign policy heritage of FDR, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy if they want to reclaim power.

Bayh told the group:

"If you ask me why we lost the last presidential election, I'd say more than anything else, it was because of our perceived problems with national security, broadly defined, and the war on terror, more specifically. We still have a hurdle to cross with the American people in convincing them that we can be both tough and smart when it comes to securing America.

And we're not going to be able to have a dialogue with the American people on all the other issues that we do so well on -- health care, education, the environment, jobs. They're not going to trust us on those things if they don't first trust us with their lives."

This is, of course, what the centrists have been saying for some time. In December 2004 Peter Beinart wrote an article in The New Republic entitled "The Fighting Faith" arguing that liberalism had failed to be fundamentally reshaped by the attacks of September 11. Beinart wrote that while Democrats were still energized by traditional domestic issues like healthcare, the environment and gay rights, he could find "little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda." Beinart eventually signed on to expand the centrist thesis of his essay into a book that will hit the shelves next month The Good Fight : Why Liberals---and Only Liberals---Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.

With the next presidential election more than two years away, it's far too early to tell which side will prevail. It's going to be a long, important fight with some very serious potential consequences. For the moment, at least, the centrists have fought back and taken the offensive. Time will tell if they can hold on to it.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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