Liberals at war again . . . with each other

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
Font Size:

The recent critical reaction by former President Clinton to the characterization of his policies by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as reflecting “probably the best Republican president the country ever had” reminds us that the crucial debate within the Democratic Party, between “pragmatic” and “purist” liberals, continues — and is similar to the division between traditional Republican conservatives and the more extreme Tea Partiers.

Clinton responded just last week to Maddow’s comment from last March, saying during a TV interview, “What she meant by that was I didn’t necessarily follow their conventional wisdom.”

For liberal Democrats, this exchange represents, in my view, a continuation of a longtime disagreement within the Democratic Party. What I believe Clinton meant by the “conventional wisdom” is the kind of doctrinaire “purist liberalism” that allows for no pragmatic compromise or recognition that liberal reform must come incrementally.

We saw that purist-vs.-pragmatic liberal split play out in the healthcare debate, when purist liberals actually claimed, in disagreement with pragmatic liberals like Bill Clinton and President Obama, that no healthcare bill at all was better than one lacking a public option.

Maddow made her remark about Clinton being a Republican president in the context of a discussion criticizing such pragmatic liberals who supported Obama’s healthcare bill. So during a radio interview, I described her characterization of Clinton as an example of her purist intolerance. Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz wrote that my use of the word intolerance “missed the mark.”

“She is entitled to her opinion,” Kurtz wrote in the Post. “If Maddow thinks Clinton’s Third Way centrism leaned too far to the right, she’s entitled to say so. That hardly makes her intolerant.”

But, with all due respect to Kurtz, whom I regard as a truly great journalist, Maddow didn’t use the words he put into her mouth. To repeat — she said that Clinton was probably the “best” Republican president “ever.” Of course I agree Maddow is entitled to her opinion. But she is not entitled to ignore the facts.

No objective person could describe Clinton’s policies — pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, in favor of raising taxes on the rich, pro-environmental regulation, anti-global warming and pro-carbon alternatives — as reflective of Republican policies. Only a person, in my opinion, who is intolerant of anyone who disagrees with his or her definition of liberalism would describe someone with Clinton’s policies a “Republican president” — much less the “best … ever.”

This insistence on what I perceive too often to be a “my way or the highway” attitude on the purist left of the Democratic Party has its counterpart on the right. As Rush Limbaugh said after Tea Partier Christine O’Donnell defeated moderate Rep. Mike Castle for the Republican nomination for Senate in Delaware, thus apparently ceding a solid pickup opportunity to the Democrats, “If we lose it, fine. It’s better to have a genuine Marxist in the U.S. Senate rather than a phony, pretend conservative who’s gonna vote often like a Marxist and just confuse everybody and water down the entire identification of what a conservative or what a Republican is.” Sound familiar?

So let the debate among pragmatic and purist liberals on tactics continue, without questioning the commitment to liberal values and goals by either side of the debate. If the results in November end up as dire as now appears possible for Democrats, we liberals cannot afford exaggerating our differences when what we need to do is reaffirm our common commitment to progressive government with fiscal responsibility — precisely the combination that made Bill Clinton a two-term president, leaving office with a 65 percent approval rating.

This piece appears today, September 23, 2010, in Mr. Davis’s regular weekly column in The Hill “Purple Nation” and “The Daily Caller.”

Mr. Davis is the founder of the Washington D.C. law firm, Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in litigation, legal crisis management, and legislative and public policy strategies. He served as Special Counsel to President Clinton in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).