Courage. Conviction. Constancy.
These are among the most prized of political virtues. They are also qualities that opponents of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton routinely excoriate her for lacking.
In recent times, criticism has been flung the Senator’s way from the left as much as the right. Almost all of it is rooted in the notion that she is a slave to expediency.
“Vote for What You Believe In” is the imploring and somewhat sanctimonious slogan that sits atop the Web site of Jonathan Tasini.
Mr. Tasini, a labor activist of long standing but dubious efficacy, is mounting a quixotic bid to beat Mrs. Clinton for the Democratic nomination as she seeks re-election to the Senate this fall.
Mr. Tasini’s campaign is largely built around his opposition to the war in Iraq. He has castigated Mrs. Clinton for weakness on that score and for alleged complicity in various other political crimes, including the “Wal-Martization” of America.
Mrs. Clinton has attracted unfavorable comment from the left on other subjects too, ranging from the purported softening of her pro-choice policies to her now-incremental approach to health-care reform.
Iraq remains the dominant issue, however.
Mrs. Clinton voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war back in 2002, and has thus been out of step with her party’s grassroots from the start. Her refusal to condemn the war, or even to support setting a date for U.S. withdrawal, has deepened liberal disenchantment.
The actress-activist Susan Sarandon told More magazine in March that Mrs. Clinton had “lost her progressive following because of her caution and centrist approach.”
Citing Mrs. Clinton’s vote on the war, Ms. Sarandon added, “What America is looking for is authentic people who want to go into public service because they believe strongly in something, not people who are trying to get elected.”
But where is the evidence that Mrs. Clinton doesn’t believe strongly in the importance of attaining American objectives in Iraq? Where is the evidence that she is permitting political calculation to trump conscience?
No such evidence exists.
Mrs. Clinton is, of course, not the only Democrat to receive liberal brickbats. In Connecticut, Joe Lieberman’s career is in serious peril from anti-war challenger Ned Lamont.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, recently described Mr. Lieberman’s attitude towards the President’s Iraq policy as “groveling.” And that is mild by comparison with the language some erstwhile supporters deploy against him.
A significant strand of the leftist opposition to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Lieberman is inspired by a single, dangerous misconception: that extremism and integrity are synonymous.
The liberal “ultras” suggest that centrist positions cannot be arrived at sincerely, but only through spinelessness or mercenary self-interest.
The concept that those who cleave to hard-line positions are more “authentic” than those who do not is hardly new. It has a long bipartisan history, as moderate New York Republicans including Jacob Javits and John Lindsay could once have attested.
But the level of rancor that now characterizes political debate—and the capacity of the blogosphere to channel and amplify the most bellicose voices—has lent the idea new intensity.
Mr. Lieberman has not shown cowardice in any objective sense. On the contrary, he has taken a stance on Iraq born of conviction and held to it despite incurring deep political wounds. In a less feverish atmosphere, his actions would rightly be recognized as courageous.
Mrs. Clinton, who almost everyone believes to be readying herself for a Presidential run, could have made her life easier had she bent with the prevailing political wind on Iraq, just as her Senate colleague John Kerry has done.
Because of her refusal to take that course, she has opened herself to a primary challenge from the left in 2008. It will likely be a lot more dangerous than the one from Mr. Tasini.
The increased muscle of activists on the farthest flank of each party brings another, broader danger. Bipartisanship is the oil that allows American government to run smoothly. It is already in short supply.
If all Senators who seek common ground with members of the opposite party find themselves being tarred and feathered as Mr. Lieberman has been, the effects will be disastrous.
Honest opposition to the policies of Ms. Clinton, Mr. Lieberman or anyone else is an honorable thing. But impugning their integrity, against the weight of available evidence, is very different.
Too many on both the left and the right now seek to make shrillness synonymous with sincerity, to equate biliousness with bravery, and to elide the difference between hyperbole and honesty.
They must be resisted, for theirs is a road to nowhere.
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