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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

In Search of the Radical Center

The No Labels fantasy is a farce played by small men.

Joe Lieberman

Napoleon Bonaparte was three inches taller than Robespierre and three inches shorter than Adolf Hitler. Churchill, Mussolini, and Alexander were all about the same. Saddam, Castro, Lincoln, and De Gaulle were all 6’2” or taller. David Ben-Gurion was 5 feet flat, two inches shorter than Yasser Arafat. The great, good, and tragic Engelbert Dollfuss was an inch shorter still, in uneasy company with Deng Xiaoping. The 19th century Mexican liberal president Benito Juarez—for whom Il Duce was named—must have cut an imposing figure at 4’6”.

The internet tells me Joe Lieberman is 5’9”—somewhere in the Hitler–Caesar region—but I have a hard time accepting this as true. Yet I have studied the subject extensively. Analyze photos of Lieberman alongside other public figures whose heights are on the record: It all checks out. He may be lying by an inch or two, but everybody does that.

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Don’t get me wrong. I do not assign any special moral weight to the distance of a man’s head from the ground; I am not especially tall myself. None of it means anything, except that body and soul are real, and joined, and both discernible. That Robespierre and Deng were both wee little fellas comports with their bloodthirsty politics of resentment, a hatred of Man and God and Order; that Dollfuss and Ben-Gurion were the same merely reinforces the romantic image of a man up against long odds. Charles De Gaulle’s colossal frame is a pat illustration of his towering moral stature; Castro’s is the image of a tyrant overgrown. (With Lincoln and Saddam, it is a matter of perspective.) That the champions of civilization contra chaos—Napoleon, Churchill, Chiang Kai-Shek—would fall square in the middle with madmen on either side confirms a sort of basic intuition. One way or another, the body seems to make sense of the soul, and vice versa. With Lieberman, though, one gets the feeling of a mismatch: The body may be 5’9”, but the soul is about 5’4”. It is not an insult; just an observation.

Joseph Lieberman is one of the vilest living figures in American politics, a man whose unthinking capacity for evil is tempered only by his overbearing mediocrity, a ghoul for whom the reduction of Iraq to rubble would have been worth the lifeblood of every boy in Buffalo and St. Louis. Only two things are certain to excite Joe Lieberman: death and taxes. (Ben Franklin said that, or something like it.) He is loathsome, bloodthirsty, and from Connecticut. Worst of all, he is enduring. He is a burning paper bag dropped on your doorstep, a bad joke played by an idiot friend—in this case, Bill Buckley, a Yale classmate who whipped for the warmonger’s first Senate campaign—the muck and stench made all the more unbearable by the fact of its frivolity. You may try to dispense with him; he will wind up smeared on the bottom of your shoe. (That was an insult.)

The former senator and failed vice presidential candidate is in the Wall Street Journal this week to defend his pet project, No Labels, against charges that its efforts to mount a third-party “unity ticket” would damage Joe Biden’s prospects and help Donald Trump in November ’24. Of course, that all depends on who No Labels actually puts forward at its party convention in Dallas next April.

But the ludicrousness of No Labels does not hinge on half-baked polling a year out from the election. It is not so much about what they hope to accomplish as what they think they are doing in the first place. Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate and a leading champion of the Iraq war, is the group’s founding chairman. Its CEO is a veteran fundraiser for such left-wing figures as Gary Hart, Evan Bayh, and Bill Clinton. Still, the group has some cross-party bona fides. One of the venture’s main financial backers is Harlan Crow, a Dallas billionaire who was raked over the coals by left-wing media early this year for the crime of having a friend who happens to be a judge. Its Problem Solvers Caucus on Capitol Hill has plenty of members from both sides of the aisle, though reports are bubbling that the Republicans will leave en masse in the wake of Kevin McCarthy’s ouster from the speakership. (Nancy Mace, who voted to kick McCarthy, is expected to be shown the door.)

There are a few apparent principles that unify this coalition. None of them has ever seen a war he was not willing to send American boys to die in. None of them has the least bit of interest in the social issues that ignite middle America, like the duty to protect the unborn and the family. They are, by and large, devoted free traders with little interest either in American strength as a homegrown principle or American jobs as a moral imperative. They are usually happy to spend taxpayer money, so long as it does not produce discernible benefits for U.S. citizens.

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How these people can possibly believe that they sit in the center of American politics—when large-scale surveys and analysis consistently show that their corner of the political compass is virtually unpeopled outside Washington, D.C.—is hard to say.

Of course, the whole vocabulary on the subject is off base. There is no middle ground between truth and falsehood. Error has no rights, nor does it have any lefts. The “center” is simply that which is correct, which is to say enlightened anarcho-Thomism of the kind embodied by Great Men of History like George Washington, Francisco Franco, and Rudy Giuliani.

The belief used to be de rigueur among thoughtful political watchers that the United States had no true, operative left wing while outright Communist parties remained active across large portions of Europe. This may have been true for a brief moment from the 1950s onward, but it certainly cannot be argued in the era of the Squad. It would be far truer to say that no effective right wing exists in this country; labels like “far-right” can only be applied in the realm of actual politics to figures like Matt Gaetz and the rest of the Freedom Caucus, whose most controversial opinion is that sometimes the government ought to spend less than it does.

When people misunderstand the poles so dramatically, it is inevitable that they will misplace the vital center. And so we get Joe Lieberman, and John McCain, and every other wolf in wolf’s clothing who has come and gone from the political stage over the course of the last two decades. Too often in America, words like “centrist” and “moderate” have been used to sanitize the position of these few reprehensible swamp creatures whose love of war and carnage cannot even be explained away by misplaced patriotism.

But even this is beside the point, for now. Put off the big picture for a moment. The glaring question: Who are they going to get to challenge Trump? Only a politician with a death wish.

In 2020, before the current slate of heel-biters and has-beens, that was Bill Weld. A New England patrician who spent six years as governor of Massachusetts at the end of the last millennium, Weld had nothing to lose. A Republican turned Libertarian turned Republican, he ran on a sort of proto-No Labels platform. His pitch to voters was straightforward: Wouldn’t it feel better if your Social Security was cut by “the most pro-choice person you’re ever going to meet”? His slogan was a threat: “Leadership America Deserves.” 

I remember one busy Saturday watching Weld be denied a table at Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown. It was just two years after he had offered himself as Washington’s hope against the hinterlands. I gained some respect for him that day—he did not pull a “Do you know who I am?”—but most of all the scene inspired pity; had he asked, even in Georgetown, the answer would have been “no.” (Weld is 6’4”.)

This is the usual fate of such challengers to charismatic populists: buried before they’re dead. Most clever politicians know this, and would not dare to try. No Labels already tried to recruit Chris Christie for 2024. There are worse choices than the old New Jersey kingpin. Chris Christie is a man of semi-divine energies, a force of nature and political destiny who might have been an American emperor were he not such a thin-skinned and hot-headed goombah. But he is not an idiot, and he sent Joe Lieberman packing.

No third party candidate can win in 2024. The maximal outcome is a spoiler whose sliver of either party’s vote is just not-tiny enough to sway the outcome one way or another (which Lieberman assures us is not what No Labels is working toward). But anybody with the political savvy it would take to hit that high-single-digits benchmark is likely to tell Joe Lieberman to get bent.

And yet. Joe Lieberman is nothing if not optimistic. In the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, Lieberman ran at a distant fifth behind John Kerry, Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Wesley Clark. Even Al Gore, whose running mate he had been four years before, came out publicly against him. That did not matter. He assured Wolf Blitzer that he was picking up the “Joementum” needed to come up from behind.

His pitch was worse than Weld’s: What if the guy shipping your son off to a meat grinder was waving a rainbow flag? Okay, he couched it, but only a little bit: “In an age of terrorism and tyranny, the American people are not going to vote for a candidate—no matter how angry they are at George Bush about their lost jobs, their higher cost of health insurance, the desecration of our environment and compromise of our rights—-unless they believe that Democrat can keep them safe. And I'm the one, based on my record, who will do that.” This was his sincerely held belief: that Americans would vote for a man whose politics they hated so long as he promised he would send their sons to die in backward desert squabbles on the far side of the world.

When the polls closed, they showed Joe Lieberman stuck in single digits. A week later, he shuttered the campaign, with five more losses under his belt. In his home state, the senator scraped together 5 percent; nowhere else did he manage more than 2.

No Labels’ numbers are not likely to be much better. These efforts will always fail, not just because their engineers are unlikable hacks. The greater problem is simply that no lane exists for them. A middle way is already established in American politics: the conservative populism of Richard Nixon (5’11”) and Donald Trump (6’3”), two of the most beloved presidents in modern history. Unlike the triple threat of military adventurism, social liberalism, and free-market absolutism, it is actually attuned to the sensibilities and interests of the people of this country. And so—despite the best efforts of the deep state apparatchiks, the media oligarchs, the partisans of liberalism left and right, and (of course) Joe Lieberman—it may yet have its day.