By Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | March 8, 2007
If you had to place Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) in a political box back in 2002, you would have been hard-pressed to pigeonhole her as a by-the-book liberal.
On national security, Tauscher boasted stellar credentials. She had voted to authorize the Iraq war, and she had stood boldly alongside Joe Lieberman and Tom Delay when President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, establishing the Department of Homeland Security and, to the outraged horror of the ACLU, investing it with a range of counterterrorism powers. If Dennis Kucinich and his proposed “Department of Peace and Nonviolence” validated every tie-died stereotype about the post-Vietnam Democrat, Ellen Tauscher’s presence on the Democratic bench argued that the party was not so easily to be dismissed.
Tauscher’s economic instincts, likewise, ill-conformed to the cliché of the tax-and-spend liberal. As a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist group of Congressional Democrats that advocates “robust foreign policy” and “economic growth,” she railed against “counterproductive” taxes and staked out a hawkish line on the budget. An unapologetic free-trader, she touted her commitment to “forging new trade agreements” and broke with all but 24 House Democrats to back the Trade Act of 2002, which laid the scaffolding for free-trade agreements with Australia, Bahrain, Chile, Morocco, Oman, and Singapore among other nations.
Not least noteworthy, Tauscher had a justly earned reputation for defying pressure from her party’s Left flank. In 2002, she stood up to Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for trying to redraw her congressional district along more partisan, and inevitably more liberal, Democratic lines — retribution, as Tauscher saw it, for her earlier support of the more moderate Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) over Pelosi for House minority whip. Pelosi, and much of the party’s ideological core, were apoplectic.
It’s a very different Ellen Tauscher that sits in the House today. Where the Tauscher of 2002 was known for breaking ranks with her Democratic colleagues, the Tauscher of today appears eager to play the proverbial good soldier.
Take the war in Iraq. When Ted Kennedy announced in January that he was submitting legislation to block an escalation of troops in Iraq without express Congressional consent, Tauscher promised to put forward a version of Kennedy’s surge-busting bill in the House. Last month she backed the “nonbinding” resolution denouncing the surge. Tauscher has even co-sponsored H.R. 808, Dennis Kucinich’s inadvertently comical legislation to establish the Department of Peace and Nonviolence and a national “Peace Day,” on which occasion citizens will “endeavor to create peace.”
On trade, too, Tauscher is singing a different tune. No longer stressing the virtues of free-market outcomes, Tauscher now says that trade agreements have to be “balanced and fair,” a familiar code for saddling trade pacts with protectionist clauses. Her pledge to forge new trade agreements notwithstanding, in 2005 Tauscher opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, charging that it would “weaken labor rights protections”(read: the union lobby had declared against it) and was therefore “unacceptable.”
Finally, Tauscher has been tamed by the party’s Left. Of her onetime nemesis Nancy Pelosi she now raves that as majority leader Pelosi is “absolutely perfect — and she looks so beautiful doing it!” Goodbye political centrist, hello party loyalist.
What accounts for Tauscher’s abrupt transformation? In a word, the Left. In her dissent from the antiwar hymnal, Tauscher has incurred the ire of her party’s dogmatic base, especially the online activists — the so-called “netroots” — who congregate around DailyKos.com and likeminded sites. Incensed at her refusal to toe the Left’s line on defense and the economy, party messengers have been hitting her hard.
Throughout her 2006 re-election run, Tauscher was savaged by left-wing blogs and advocacy sites like Dump Ellen Tauscher and Ellen Tauscher Weekly, which kept a running count of her political heresies. When last October Tauscher hit back that the party should make a place for centrists and warned against “running over the left cliff,” her cyber-critics lost their already precarious grip on reality. “If we lose this election, it will be the fault of the Ellen Tauschers of the Democratic Party,” seethed Chris Bowers, a blogger for the well-trafficked left-wing site MyDD.com days before the election.
Tauscher’s re-election has only enraged her enemies. The political action committee Working for Us, which polices left-wing loyalty among members of Congress, recently dubbed Tauscher the Democratic Party’s “#1 Worst Offender.” Just last month, Working for Us board member and DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúniga vowed that the activist community would field a candidate against Tauscher in her district’s 2008 primary.
Such threats have had the desired effect. Instead of cautioning against capitulation to the party’s leftwing margins, Tauscher has moved on to the same page. She now urges Democrats to consider that “we want to remain in the majority,” an appeal that carries the unmistakable whiff of desperation. Concerned Democrats have taken note. “To attack Ellen Tauscher because of her apostasy on national security, and to call her a tool of corporate interests because she wants to promote economic growth — this is a death wish for out party,” a Democratic strategist familiar with Tauscher’s travails told FPM.
The internet-based insurgency against Tauscher is representative of a larger political phenomenon. Much of the post-election media coverage has focused the Democratic Party’s supposed pragmatism. In this account, the selection of conservative Democrats like James Webb and Heath Schuler to stand on the party ticket in conservative-leaning states like Virginia and North Carolina, with the approval of DailyKos.com, is said to illustrate the broadmindedness of the party.
One flaw in this big-tent theory is that it confuses tolerance with utility: Left-wing candidates of the kind favored by the netroots would not have a prayer in red states, and conservative Democrats represent their best hope. A bigger hole is that this theory is strikingly at odds with the ongoing campaign, waged by the grassroots Left and aided by the Democratic leadership, to purge the party of centrist voices. That’s nowhere more true than on the issue on which the party’s base will brook no disagreement: national defense.
Consider the case of Ellen Tauscher’s California colleague, Rep. Jane Harman. In the days before the grassroots Left had appointed itself the judge and jury of permissible liberal politics, Harman was a no-nonsense advocate of an assertive American role on the global stage. In a May 1995 speech to the House of Representatives, Harman urged policy makers to move beyond the timidity that had led some to counsel the “containment” of communism rather than the resolute promotion of American values. American foreign policy, Harman insisted, should seek to “expand peace and prosperity.” The attentive observer would have discerned echoes of Ronald Reagan, who vowed in his 1984 state of the union address to “strengthen peace, build prosperity, and expand freedom for all who share our goals.”
True to those Reaganite views, Harman was an early and vocal supporter of holding Saddam Hussein to account for his continued defiance of the international community. In 2002, she voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. The vote put her at loggerheads with Democratic leaders like her longtime ally Nancy Pelosi; antiwar activists grumbled.
But Harman stood her ground. “Do I think what we’re doing today means we’re going to war?” she asked rhetorically. “No. I think we’re standing up to evil.” Rather than renounce her vote at the first sign of struggle on the ground, Harman joined the likes of the John McCain in calling for a troop increase to pacify Iraq.
None of this, it goes nearly without saying, endeared Harman to her party’s anti-war footsoldiers. “Progressive” media outlets and blogs blasted her as a “warmonger” and a “Bush apologist.” Activist anger at Harman culminated in a primary challenge against her in the 2006 election. The anti-Harman camp’s candidate of choice was Marcy Winograd, a far-Left sloganeer who accused Harman of being “treacherously” complicit in the “Bush agenda of eternal war“ and its attempt to impose “corporate empire” on the world.
Despite Winograd’s decidedly fringe roster of supporters, among them antiwar agitator Cindy Sheehan, political activist and conspiracy theorist Daniel Ellsberg, and radical author Howard Zinn, she won nearly 40 percent of the vote in loosing the primary — a nerve-wracking result for Harman, a six-term incumbent who sank more than $550,000 into her campaign.
The final insult came just after election, when Nancy Pelosi denied Harman chairmanship of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, a post she had sought for years. Because Harman’s qualifications were not in dispute — she had a reputation as a foreign policy wonk and her national security résumé ran to eight years on the intelligence committee — Pelosi’s move was perceived as political payback for her firm stand on the war.
And with good reason: Pelosi’s initial choice for the post had been Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings, an undistinguished legislator whose main claim to fame is being just the sixth federal judge in history to be removed from office by Congress. Pelosi’s eventual selection, Texas Democrat Silvestre Reyes, was scarcely more qualified, something he confirmed in December when he assured a reporter that Sunni al-Qaeda was “predominantly probably Shi’ite” and declined even to guess the religious dispensation of Hezbollah. Reyes’ rise was as a revealing commentary on Harmon’s fall from party grace.
Harman now knows her place. From a national security pragmatist in the stamp of Joseph Lieberman — Harman was one of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who supported the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program — she has been reborn as a shrill partisan. In a détente with her former adversaries of the DailyKos, Harman last May posted an entry on the site denouncing the surveillance program she had once supported. “What we’re seeing now is a lawless White House out of control — and that must stop,” Harman wrote. The old Harman urged a troop increase in Iraq. No more. “I said a surge in troops was a good idea three years ago — but not now,” Harman recently said, adding, “Other strategies — political and diplomatic — right now are more critical.” Harman was talking about Iraq policy, but the comment was a fitting epitaph for her career as a tough-on-defense Democrat.
For their part, Harman’s critics couldn’t be happier. DailyKos proprietor Zúniga is happy to claim credit for Harman’s volte-face. In the past, he noted, Harman would cause friction by challenging the party’s base, but an activist-backed electoral challenge has put the fear of the Left into her. “She’s been great ever since,” Zúniga boasts. Harman’s opponent Marcy Winograd is similarly pleased, praising Harman for her “increasingly confrontational” stance toward the Bush administration and its national security policies. “I see it as an accomplishment,” Winograd says.
Intense though it may seem, the disdain that liberal bloggers and activists have leveled at the likes of Tauscher and Harman is practically a love fest next to the ceaseless torrent of abuse that has rained down on the man the Left loves to hate: Senator Joseph Lieberman. One reason for this, no doubt, is the fact that unlike some of his colleagues Lieberman has stood on principle, refusing to change his views on defense, and especially the Iraq war, in order to appease the party’s angry partisans. Indeed, Lieberman’s victory last fall is often held up as an example of the limitations of the Democratic party’s Left. In one sense, that’s correct. Lieberman’s successful campaign showed in stark terms that the interests of left-wing activists are not necessarily synonymous with those of mainstream voters, even in liberal blue-states.
In a crucial way, however, the Connecticut election was also a win for the Left. After all, Lieberman won as an Independent after being ousted from the party by the DailyKos-endorsed Ned Lamont. Lieberman maintained his independent streak, but the Democratic Party, particularly on the issue of national security, took on a darker shade of blue. Dan Gerstein, a Democratic strategist and a consultant to Lieberman, is worried about the political effects of the party’s Left turn. “There’s a growing feeling in the [Democratic] base that winning elections is not about reaching out to the mainstream but about being more aggressive in confronting Republicans and promoting a more full-throated liberal platform,” Gerstein told FPM. In Gerstein’s view, that approach misreads the political landscape. He argues that the “more extreme elements” within the base have created “the perception that our party doesn’t take seriously the threat of jihadism to our national security. That’s not going to convince voters that we know how to keep America safe.”
It might be added that the party’s case is not improved when one considers that the only other Democrat with an inspiring defense record apart from Lieberman, Georgia’s Zell Miller, retired in 2004 to jeers from his own party. The result is that those seeking candidates to confront the global surge of Islamic jihadism have little to choose from in the Democratic Party. “In following the course of the base,” Dan Gerstein observes, “the party has gone over the deep end.”
Partisans may be tempted to see the deficit of reasonable Democratic voices as a positive development. But it comes with a significant downside. Crafting a pragmatic consensus on national security becomes an impossible challenge when one party has, in effect, retired from the fight. Doubtless, the DailyKos crowd rejoices every time Ellen Tauscher or Jane Harmon lashes out against the president or Joe Lieberman signs his editorials as the “Independent senator from Connecticut.” Their gain, though, is the country’s loss.