Branded with a scarlet ‘M’

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

John McCain, an Arizona Republican, was talking about his friend, Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. “I hesitate to say anything nice about him, for fear that it would be used against him,” cracked McCain. “And that’s a terrible commentary on the state of politics and the political climate today.”

McCain’s right, and he has the same problem. Democrats hesitate to say nice things about their pal from Arizona, afraid their words will be thrown in his face if he runs for the Republican nomination in 2008. And that is a “terrible commentary,” because it violates the essential spirit of American politics – pragmatic consensus building between two broadly based parties that represent different viewpoints but search for common solutions.

The “political climate today” differs sharply from that spirit. Lieberman is facing a fierce fight in the Democratic primary next week because his party’s liberal base says he’s far too willing to support President Bush on the Iraq war, and work with Republicans like McCain on domestic issues.

Bipartisanship is seen, by the extremes in both parties, as betrayal. Compromise, the most valuable word in the political language, is used as a damning epithet. And while the attempt to purge Lieberman is the most visible reflection of this mentality, it’s hardly the only one.

In Rhode Island, Republican right-wingers are going after Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a card-carrying centrist, in the primary next month. In Michigan another GOP heretic, Rep. Joe Schwarz, is facing a similar primary challenge next week. In Pennsylvania two years ago, conservative hard-liners almost deposed Sen. Arlen Specter, a sinful supporter of abortion rights and civil liberties. Moderates in both parties risk being branded with a scarlet “M.”

We understand the frustrations felt by liberal Democrats over the war issue. The Bush administration has made a staggering series of mistakes, compounded by a rigid refusal to confess error of any kind. It has used the fight against terrorism to expand executive power and restrict individual rights. And now it is trying to stain every dissenter as a closet traitor who would “cut and run” in the face of national danger.

Since Lieberman has strongly supported this disastrous policy, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s become a modern version of those college deans and corporate executives who felt the fury of antiwar sentiment during the Vietnam era – a convenient target, a stand-in for the real enemy. After all, George Bush is not on the ballot this year, just as Lyndon Johnson was not in 1968.

Still, dumping Lieberman as a way of asserting antiwar sentiment could backfire badly. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 presidential elections. They continue to suffer from the legacy of the Vietnam years – the label that they are weak on defense and slow to oppose America’s enemies. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich is correct when he says that “the Republican Party has few allies more effective” than the liberal activists calling for Lieberman’s scalp.

Look at the numbers, and the history. Only 21 percent of Americans called themselves liberals in the last election. Since Johnson’s withdrawal the Democrats have nominated five liberals – Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis and Kerry – and they’ve all lost.

So it’s astounding to hear Rep. Maxine Waters of California endorse Lieberman’s opponent, Ned Lamont, as “the poster boy for the new hope for the Democratic Party” whose victory would foreshadow a “much more progressive” presidential candidate in 2008. The Republicans should be paying Waters’ hotel bills in Connecticut. And Lamont’s campaign debts.

But there is a deeper issue at stake here than the next presidential election. It’s the way America governs itself.

The center of the U.S. Senate is close to collapse. Moderates in both parties are an endangered species. Consider the centrists who have left in recent years, often because they could no longer stand the poisonous polarization that has sparked the campaigns against Lieberman and Chafee. Republicans like John Danforth, Warren Rudman, Alan Simpson and Bill Cohen. Democrats like John Breaux, David Pryor, Sam Nunn and Bob Graham.

These are the kinds of lawmakers who lubricate the legislative process, who work across the aisle, who don’t see every issue purely in terms of maximizing partisan advantage. Joe Lieberman and Lincoln Chafee are in that tradition. They are part of the solution not part of the problem. American politics will be better off if the ideological purists fail to defeat them. Politicians should feel free to say nice things about their friends in the other party.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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