"Could you give me some reasons why libertarians might want to vote for you?"
I could tell my question startled Connecticut Democrat Ned Lamont, who's running against Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the war hawk and culture nanny par excellence. We were standing in Lamont's room at the Washington Hilton, the site of the Campaign for America's Future 2006 Take Back America conference. (Someone missed an opportunity for synergy by not booking the American Values suite.) As long as I was a hurdle for the candidate to jump before he could meet some people with checkbooks, I figured I could rope him into the "Libertarian Democrats" debate.
Lamont's first response was a look of wide-eyed, Marty McFly bewilderment. But after a moment of noodling, Lamont said "Terri Schiavo." Sen. Lieberman had rushed the stage when President Bush and Republican leaders were staging an intervention in the tragedy of the comatose Florida woman whose husband and parents disagreed on whether she should be taken off life support. "Sen. Lieberman thought it was the government's job to decide what was right for that family," Lamont said. "He's all right with the government intruding into our private lives. And not just in that case."
It was a good answer. (This judge would also have accepted Lieberman's video game censorship, his support for the Iraq war, or the Department of Homeland Security.) Last week, Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas floated the "Libertarian Democrat" idea and sparked a discussion of what the party of Jefferson Davis can do to bring libertarians into its tent. It was thrilling, insofar as anything in Connecticut politics can be thrilling, to find a little common cause with a real Democratic candidate.
But as Lamont circled the room, and later as he spoke to the whole crowd of about 50, I heard less and less that could appeal to libertarians. The liberals in the room wanted to hear about Lamont's support for universal health care, and for federal spending on schools, and for rolling back tax cuts "for the richest one percent." The candidate was interrupted by applause when he said that, if he was in the Senate, he would have "led the fight against Judge Alito."
If there were any other libertarians in the room (there conspicuously were not), we could have commiserated after Lamont's speech. This was the kind of Democrat who'd be challenging Republicans in close races all over the country in five months. And these Democrats won't be running against doctrinaire economic liberals like Lieberman. They'll be running against Republicans who are equally wrong on the war and on government's march into the bedrooms, but obviously preferable on taxes and (at least in theory) on the size of government. But what if libertarians temporarily switched sides? What if they bought into the argument that the current crop of Democrats stand hand-in-glove with them on war and privacy issues, and that by loaning libertarian votes to the minority party, they could eke out a few little victories? Would libertarians be happy in the Democratic party?
Of course not. Just ask a liberal.
After all, this was supposed to be a conference by and for liberals. The Campaign for America's Future was founded three years ago as a counterweight to the staggering D.C. Democratic party and its sclerotic think tanks. Every element of the Democratic base had a place here. At the book table in the exhibit hall, Sen. Hillary Clinton's autobiography mingled with books about the stolen 2008 election and Ward Churchill's classic exposé of the Eichmann-9/11 victim connection. In the hall connecting the "workshop" rooms with radio and TV hookups, the "Backbone Campaign"—a guerrilla theatre posse best known for awarding trophies in the shape of anatomically-accurate spine sculptures to stalwart Democratic congressfolk—suited up four of their members with prison uniforms and giant papier må'chè heads modeled after the Bush cabinet. The hydrocephalic Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice walked past attendees very, very slowly, hands bound by cardboard shackles, as mainstream Democrats like Gary Hart and Terry McAuliffe danced quickly away from cable news cameras that could have placed them in the same shot.
But the really activist left-wingers were incidental to the conference; they had as much control over the proceedings as toddlers have over the locks of their playpens. The event was carefully coordinated by the hidebound D.C. Democrats of the Campaign, and they were aiming to repackage themselves for a November 2006 relaunch. On Monday morning pollster Stanley Greenberg introduced new surveys he'd done for the Campaign, cherry-picking the issues and phrasings of issues ("make this economy work for the many, not simply the few") that could position to party to purloin as many GOP seats as possible. Immigration wasn't mentioned; the Iraq war was finessed away as a matter of "national security." The professional Democrats suggested the party enter the midterm fight as reformers on trade, universal education, and health care—in other words, tariffs, taxes, and catastrophe. On the one hand, they suggested policies that would set back the causes of libertarians. On the other, they suggested ignoring—and by definition setting back—the most pressing causes of the liberals.
The disconnect became crystal clear during Sen. Clinton's speech, which opened the second day of the conference. Most journalists (including this one) rushed to report on the shrill, bullshit-calling reception Clinton received after the once and future co-president refused to back off her Iraq war support. That isn't surprising anymore; coupled with the news that John Kerry's oratory actually drove the audience into rapture, it deserved the headlines. But it didn't signal any kind of break between the activist liberals and the party brass. The few people who defied posted warnings and guards that banned signs or banners from the speech lifted their flags before and after Clinton's address. Julia Field, a Chicagoan and member of the flamboyant anti-war feminist group Code Pink (they once disrupted a speech by arch-neocon Nancy Pelosi) admitted her disgust at Clinton's refusal to reconsider the war. But she didn't boo her, and she didn't plan to withhold her vote from pro-war Democrats. "If my choice was a really rotten Republican against Hillary," Field said. "I'd still have to vote for Hillary. We just have to win at least one house of the Congress."
Activist liberals in the Democratic party's base are more or less trapped. They can't get what they want from the Republicans, and they're not promised everything they want from the Democats, but under the circumstances the party of Clinton is the only hope they have for getting anything they want. They've grown nostalgic for the party that, during the administration of President Bill Clinton, disappointed them on an hourly basis. That feeling will be familiar to libertarians who in 2000 expressed their dissatisfaction with Clinton by yanking the lever for that dumb-but-promising governor of Texas.
This isn't a simple election. Some of the Clinton party's candidates, like Virginia's James Webb, actually deserve the "Libertarian Democrat" moniker. In Connecticut, where a Democrat's going to win anyway, the pro-privacy, anti-war, pork-bashing Lamont would clearly make a better senator than Joe Lieberman. In the short term, libertarians could be satisfied—even more so than liberals—with a Democratic Congress that rolled back anti-privacy laws and acquainted Bush with his veto pen. But the Democrats are the Democrats. Even when they're railing against NSA wiretapping, they're wishing they could be passing higher taxes and entitlement payouts.
It might be in libertarians' best interest to ally with Democrats for this election. If they do, they could see short-term progress that would never come out of the invasion-happy GOP majority. Inevitably, they'll find out something they have in common with liberals. They'll be let down.