The Parties Are Different

Ralph Northam proves it.

I wouldn’t normally bother reporting anything Joe Lieberman says. He’s a vestige of the “centrist” era in Democratic Party history. If anyone is irrelevant to today’s liberal advancements, it’s Lieberman. Even so, he said something worth fleshing out.

CNN’s Jim Sciutto asked him for his thoughts on Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia. Late Friday, a Republican-backed website posted an image of a page from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook. Next to pictures of Northam is another featuring a person dressed in Klan regalia and a person in blackface.

Within a day, Northam was isolated.

National Democrats called on him to resign. Democrats in Virginia’s congressional delegation followed suit. The black caucus of the state legislature, the backbone of Northam’s coalition, demanded he step down. Virtually every Democrat wants him out. Yet Northam remains in office. He says that it’s not him in the picture.

“I think there’s a rush to judgment that’s unfair,” Lieberman said. He suggested that the Democratic Party’s approach the blackface/KKK controversy with mercy in their hearts until Northam is proven guilty. Lieberman added that the governor should be judged in the context of his whole life. “He deserves a chance to prove what’s really in his essence, not to rush him out of office, unfortunately, for political reasons.”

This is the kind of thing that drove liberal Democrats insane. Whenever an issue had a clear right and wrong, Lieberman would say it’s all politics. Whenever an issue was purely political, he’d say it’s about morality. Lieberman would play both sides against the middle, as they say, precisely where he liked to reside. The Washington press corps, in thrall to the fiction of “centrism,” would go along. As I said, maddening.

Here’s the thing: Northam ran as an anti-racist. The Charlottesville massacre, in which a white supremacist ran down a woman, was the explicit backdrop of his campaign. He won by nine points thanks to a coalition of white anti-Trump suburbanites and black Virginians. There should be no surprise that Northam’s allies and Democratic voters feel defrauded. And when you feel defrauded, you want someone’s head to roll.

I could go on, but going on would suggest an argument must be made among Democrats. It does not. Debating racism ended sometime between Barack Obama’s election and Donald Trump’s. Parties can tolerate lots of disagreement and dissent. That goes double for liberals. But there are concrete limits. In today’s Democratic Party, there is no room for leaders who behave badly toward women (think: Al Franken). There is no room for leaders linked to the trappings of white supremacy.

You could say Lieberman is right. A man should be judged in the context of his whole life to discern his essence. But Northam didn’t want that. He did not want to talk about the time his yearbook featured the double racist whammy of blackface and Klan hood. He did not want to talk about his old nickname, “coonman.” He did not want to talk about the time he darkened his face with shoe polish to impersonate Michael Jackson. Sure, he’s happy to talk now, but it’s too late. Virginians want justice.

Lieberman’s comments illustrate just how far the Democratic Party has come since his retirement. It used to tolerate racism and other forms of bigotry among its leaders. Consider Bill Clinton. Consider Ralph Northam. That’s no longer the case.

Because it does not tolerate racism among leaders, it is different from its rival. This is why Lieberman’s “centrism” feels dated and out of place. It’s also why efforts to shame Republicans fail. Leading Republicans have engaged in behavior similar to Northam’s. Mitch McConnell posed in front of a Confederate flag. Steve King pals around with white nationalists. Roy Moore dated teen girls as an adult. Doesn’t matter, though.

None of that is going to get the attention the Northam scandal got, because the Republican Party will tolerate it. Republicans aren’t going to feel defrauded by pictures of leaders next to pictures of people in blackface. Just the opposite. GOP voters, especially in the American south, will not feel alienated but affirmed.

The parties are different. Yet people like Lieberman—and his spiritual heir Howard Schultz—insist otherwise. That’s not just inaccurate. It’s cynical. It overlooks the evidence of our eyes. This isn’t about mere politics. It’s about right and wrong.

—John Stoehr

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