As the primaries draw closer, observers have been wondering: Can Howard Dean be stopped? Is it possible for the Democrats to pull themselves back toward the center and away from the abyss?
Even if the former is possible, reasons abound to doubt the latter. Almost lost within the shuffle over New Year’s amidst the orange alert and the fingers pointed at the Bush Agriculture Department over the mad-cow hysteria was a year-end mini-tempest that nicely illustrates the nature of today’s Democratic Party. For what seems like the millionth time in this election cycle, Joe Lieberman was forced to defend his left flank.
This time it was for comments that were made to sound as if the Connecticut senator was about to pull a Dennis Kucinich in reverse on abortion. Lieberman was holding court with the Manchester Union Leader and waxing philosophical about abortion as an issue he thinks about a lot. He was quoted as saying that while he remains “staunchly pro-choice,” he realizes (in Union Leader senior political reporter John DiStaso’s words) “the period of time a woman actually has a ‘right to choose’ gradually grows shorter as medical science pushes fetal viability ever-earlier in pregnancy.”
“To me,” Lieberman said, “Roe v. Wade said that in the stages of pregnancy up to viability (of the fetus), the state basically cannot intervene in a decision a woman makes whether to go forward with a pregnancy or not. But after viability, the state can regulate that choice because the interest of the fetus goes up.” He noted that the Supreme Court has replaced Roe‘s original trimester framework with a consideration for fetal viability and argued that there was no inconsistency between a pro-choice position and the realization that as the age at which fetuses can survive outside the womb has been lowered “the period of time in a pregnancy when the right to choose prevails has been somewhat shortened.”
The publication of these comments under the arguably misleading headline “Roe v. Wade should be updated, says Lieberman” prompted a flurry of press releases and statements from Lieberman’s campaign reaffirming his pro-choice credentials. “I did not say nor do I believe that Roe should be looked at again, revisited or reconsidered,” said the candidate in a statement. Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera said in an Associated Press story, “There is one reason and one reason only why there is no direct quote from Senator Lieberman calling for the Roe v. Wade decision to be looked at again: Because he never said that.”
Kate Michelman came to Lieberman’s defense, but Dean predictably seized the moment to liken his opponent to the evil Republicans: “I think Joe makes the mistake that Republicans do, insinuating himself in the doctor-patient relationship.” For good measure, he dismissively claimed Lieberman “doesn’t understand the science.”
Really? The Supreme Court did in fact move from the arbitrary trimester framework to the somewhat less arbitrary viability standard more than a decade ago, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. The common understanding of viability has gone from approximately 28 weeks when Roe was decided to 23 to 24 weeks today, with continued medical advances offering the potential to push this back even further. It’s hardly a radical pronouncement to suggest that this reality has legal relevance.
The Democratic Party has become such a motley conglomerate of left-wing special interest groups that even implying that post-viability fetuses can be protected from abortion invites controversy and requires damage control pledging fealty to the NARAL line. The irony is that it is highly unlikely that Lieberman would ever act upon the observation he shared with the Union Leader in office. His most recent high-profile action on the abortion issue in the Senate was to vote against the new law banning partial-birth abortions, which tend to occur in later stages of pregnancy.
This has been Lieberman’s modus operandi for quite some time: To make vaguely conservative-sounding statements in speeches and interviews and then vote with the left in the Senate. This is the pattern he followed on racial preferences, Bill Clinton’s conduct in the Lewinsky matter, Hollywood and various family issues. His conservative votes — such as the hawkish stance on Iraq that has caused much friction with the Democratic base during his presidential campaign — are relatively rare; it is mainly his rhetoric that has gained him a reputation as a comparatively conservative Democrat.
Yet for today’s Democrats, even this is too provocative. A candidate in the Jack Kennedy tradition on national defense who so much as pays lip service to traditional values, while compiling a reliably liberal voting record on social issues, is regarded as a right-wing impostor, a member of the “Republican wing of the Democratic Party.”
This is why if a successful stop-Dean candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is to emerge, it isn’t likely to be Lieberman. In a column about Al Gore’s decision to endorse Dean over his former running mate, Jonah Goldberg argued, “…Joe Lieberman has been at the forefront of the war on terrorism in the Senate. He was pretty much the original drafter of the Department of Homeland Security, and in 2001 and 2002 he was the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs committee. In short, not only is Lieberman more qualified than he was in 2000, but the things that made him qualified to be Al Gore’s stand-in back then are all the more important after 9/11.”
But today’s Democrats have different priorities; none of those conservative-sounding qualifications are any more attractive to the crowds that cheer for Dean than off-hand comments about limits to “abortion rights.” The left has thoroughly captured the party.
This is of course the very point Zell Miller made in his recent book A National Party No More. But forget Zell Miller. This is a party that no longer has much room even for Joe Lieberman.