In the aftermath of the 2006 election, congressional Democrats - led by Speaker Pelosi and the architect of the Democratic victory, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois - pledged to pursue a centrist agenda. As much of a masquerade as this may have been, it was noteworthy after a year in which Senator Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, was primaried for being too right-wing. The Democrats' commitment to something other than rampant liberalism reassured many in the great middle of the American electorate. Yes, they thought: The Democratic Party is not the party of fringe liberals after all. They can be my party, too.
Well, the fringe liberals want to change all that.
This week, a new liberal group called They Work For Us is airing its first ads, targeting Montana's senior Democratic senator, Max Baucus. The ads demand that Mr. Baucus (who is up for reelection in 2008) use his position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to block reauthorization of the president's fast-track trade authority.
They Work For Us and a related PAC, Working for Us, were started up in January. Financed by groups such as the American Association for Justice (i.e., the trial lawyers), and the Service Employees International Union, their public face consists of legendary labor hand Steve Rosenthal, the directors of MoveOn.org, and liberal blogger Markos "Kos" Moulitsas Zuniga.
Modeled after the conservative Club for Growth, which targets more moderate Republicans with the intention of moving the GOP firmly to the right on fiscal matters, They Work For Us and its related PAC aim to rein in "rogue" Democrats who are too moderate when it comes to items like the establishment of a "living wage," the pursuit of fair (as opposed to free) trade, simplified unionization, and keeping the current Social Security system. Their anticipated primary targets are "top offenders" Ellen Tauscher of California, Henry Cuellar of Texas, and Al Wynn of Maryland.
But just what have these three done to earn the ire of left-wingers?
Bloggers at Daily Kos (the liberal blog run by Mr. Moulitsas) revile Ms. Tauscher because she "proudly voted for Bush's war," failed to support Speaker Pelosi during the Democratic leadership campaign, and urged her fellow Democrats to avoid "running over the left cliff" in the wake of their 2006 victory. They also don't like her pro-business and pro-free-trade stances. Never mind that she earned a 100% rating from the NEA in 2005, a 93% rating from the AFL-CIO in 2005, and a stunningly un-conservative F rating from the National Taxpayers Union in 2006.
For Mr. Cuellar's part, liberals hate him because of his support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, his "too cozy" relationship with President Bush, and occasional votes for tax cuts that supposedly benefit the rich. Of course, he earned a 100% rating from the NEA and a 60% rating from the AFL-CIO in 2005, and a D rating fromthe National Taxpayers Union in 2006. But, still, he is obviously far too conservative to survive in the modern Democratic Party.
And Mr. Wynn? His sins include voting for the war in Iraq, opposing the death tax, and benefiting from support from evil, exploitative Wal-Mart. All this means that despite his very liberal 2006 F rating from the National Taxpayers Union and his 80% rating from the AFL-CIO in 2005, in the eyes of the left-wing base of the Democratic party, he is a right-wing nut who needs to be removed from Congress.
But, of course, it's not just liberals pressing for more extreme politics these days.
In Washington circles, rumors still circulate that if Senator Hagel of Nebraska runs for re-election in 2008, he will be primaried. Mr. Hagel is a strong fiscal conservative who is solidly pro-life. But with his opposition to the war in Iraq and his vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment have made him not conservative enough in the eyes of some.
Ditto Senator Graham of South Carolina, another target for primarying in 2008. Never mind that Mr. Graham earns ratings from conservative interest groups that place him on par with Senators Hatch of Utah and McConnell of Kentucky. He's a Republican-In-Name-Only, apparently, because he disagreed with the president on treatment of detainees and has been less than cooperative with regard to the appointment of one of the president's judicial nominees.
Key players on both sides of the aisle have come to recognize that the majority of the American electorate is sick of extreme politics. Still, extremists on both sides of the aisle won't be diverted from their march toward liberal or conservative perfection. Which party triumphs in the next few years may ultimately be determined by who does a better job of not marching right (or left) off a cliff.