Jumping for Joe

The Seattle Times backs Lieberman because other candidates are too honest.

Ah, the benefits of enlightened local newspaper ownership. Last Sunday, The Seattle Times endorsed—drum roll please—Joe Lieberman for president.

The Times acknowledges that "this may be a last hurrah" for the Connecticut senator. Did he ever have a first?

One might ask the same of the Times when it comes to presidential endorsements. Go back to when the paper sagely endorsed former Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in 2000. In an unusual move, the Times endorsement was good not only through the primaries and caucuses, but right on through the general election. Bradley is our man, they declared, because he's the only one willing to discuss race in America. Unfortunately for the Times, a few other issues intervened—like the collapsing economy—and Bradley got his butt kicked by Al Gore. Did the Times then switch allegiance to the candidate who came closest to Bradley on the issues?

No, they endorsed George W. Bush—the "race" issue apparently having vanished from the radar screen.

The Times now feels that Lieberman is the only "centrist" Democrat in the 2004 race—which I suspect means the closest thing to a Republican they can find in the other party. As such, they say, he is the only one who can appeal to America's political center. They write that he is a New Democrat in the mold of Bill Clinton (who the Times has twice endorsed). Washington state loves such Democrats, says the Times, and they include Gov. Gary Locke, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee.

All these wise centrists are rallying to the Lieberman banner, right? Hardly. They've endorsed John Kerry.

If you slog further through the Times' oh-so-sober endorsement, you'll discover that what really bugs them is that the Democrats have abandoned their centrism and have adopted as their favorite theme "the evil rich." John Edwards dares to talk of "Two Americas." John Kerry complains about the "economy of privilege." That crazy Howard Dean claims Enron is emblematic of corporate America!

This, intones the Times, "is not the America we know."

Well maybe not, but look outside the damn window. It's the America many of the rest of us know.

I'm not quick to believe in media conspiracies. But one thing I have noticed: When candidates—left, right, or center—bring up the issue of class inequity, it is rapidly and roundly condemned on every side as "class war." Editorialists and columnists are quick to condemn it by bringing out the "P" word. "Populism" is the bogeyman of class division. Politicians who even dare whisper the truth about the economic divide in this country are quickly hushed by the pundits and told to clam up or calm down.

In its editorial, the Times refers disparagingly to Gore's "populist rhetoric" four years ago. "It sullied him," they sniff. What they don't point out, which you can read in Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg's new book on the American political landscape, The Two Americas (St. Martin's, $25.95), is that Gore won the popular vote in part because of that rhetoric, though he earned the disdain of the establishment. Lieberman thought it was the wrong strategy. But remember, it was running mate Joe who pre-emptively insisted that certain illegal overseas military ballots be counted in Florida. So much for Lieberman's political acumen.

The idea that populist themes don't play is wrong. The Bush administration has put corporate interests above the people's in virtually every aspect of government. To oppose that is not extremism, because it's everyone from the middle class on down that's getting screwed. According to The New York Times last Sunday, "earnings of workers at the middle and bottom half of the income ladder fell last year. . . . Pay for those in the top 25 percent continued rising." People are not imagining these inequities, and they need to be addressed bluntly.

The Seattle Times is not the only paper to warn against the "evils" of populism. Joe Klein, writing in Time magazine, likened Howard Dean to "George Wallace—a liberal version." A Washington Post editorial last week warned the Democratic candidates not to suggest that "business is the source of all evil." But none of the major candidates is saying that. They are simply pointing out that government should not be of, by, and for business and special interests. That such an observation practically constitutes hate speech in the minds of many in the media is alarming.

Bill Powell, writing in Fortune magazine, has a message for his readers: "The Democrats are out to get you." He considers the current populist fad among the Democratic contenders to be phony, like Kerry's reference to "Benedict Arnold" CEOs. But at least he acknowledges to his rich-guy readers that there is truth to the claims. "There is some real danger here for Bush," he writes, "given that nearly every stance the administration has taken on regulatory and environmental issues follows the Bush-does-as-big-business-wants rule."

If Democrats must use that nasty populist language, they are often advised to "be nice." "Economic populism can be seen as too negative," reports Sunday's New York Times. Well, Democrats are going to have to take that risk, because you can't sugarcoat the troubling trends in this economy, ones that extend far beyond this quarter or the next or the next.

George W. Bush and the Republicans are digging a big hole for the rest of us. Excuse us if it looks like a grave.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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