New York Post, August 21, 2006
By Ryan Sager
Jonathan Tasini has less than a month to become New York’s Ned Lamont. The Democratic primary is on Sept. 12, he’s at 13 percent in the polls and he’s just had his best fund-raising week ever online.
However, as Primary Day approaches, the “netroots” have yet to make the Tasini campaign a cause célèbre, with all the money and press attention that doing so would mean. This, despite the fact that the centrist, Iraq-War-supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton, presumptive frontrunner for the ‘08 Democratic presidential nomination, should by all rights be a much juicier target for the “progressive” Left than the washed-up Joe Lieberman ever was or could hope to be.
Tasini, a union leader and organizer turned anti-war protest candidate, has some ideas as to why: Essentially, it all boils down to a lack of backbone on the part of progressives nationwide.
“Many progressives fear confronting my opponent’s machine — which does take names and does keep lists,” Tasini told me over lunch in the West Village last week. “People are hedging their bets — Washington is a place that hinges on access.” Otherwise, Tasini said, “Why take on Joe Lieberman and not Hillary Clinton?”
He certainly has a point. If the progressive movement is really set on seizing control of the Democratic Party, Lieberman has always been an odd choice of targets — a has-been who lost bids for the presidency and vice presidency and who’s serving out his time in the Senate until he can retire in some graceful fashion.
Sen. Clinton, meanwhile, has a roughly identical profile to Lieberman’s on the war in Iraq and on issues like free trade — but, somehow, she gets a free ride.
Not entirely, of course. Many in the progressive netroots movement have made clear their disdain for Sen. Clinton.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post this May, Markos Moulitsas (proprietor of the famed DailyKos Web site), called Clinton “a leader who fails to lead” and “part of the Clinton machine that decimated the national Democratic Party.”
Michael Moore was even more brutal in an open letter on his Web site the day after Lamont’s victory in the Connecticut Democratic primary. “To Hillary, our first best hope for a woman to become president, I cannot for the life of me figure out why you continue to support Bush and his war,” Moore wrote. “Last night’s voter revolt took place just a few miles from your home in Chappaqua. Did you hear the noise? Can you read the writing on the wall?”
In Tasini, progressives have a perfectly viable vehicle to make that noise right on Sen. Clinton’s Chappaqua doorstep. He’s passionate, articulate and an experienced organizer (he was president of the National Writers Union for 13 years); he wants to bring the troops home from Iraq and impeach (or at least censure) the president, and he thinks “so-called free trade is a disaster.”
So, is it really just lack of backbone that’s stopping progressives from sending the hated Hillary a message?
Progressive activist David Sirota, author of the new book “Hostile Takeover,” lists money as the most important factor as to why the New York Senate primary has been off the progressives’ radar.
“Part of it has to do with the fact that New York is such an expensive state, such a big state,” he said. “The gateway to being a real voice in the public debate is so much higher [than in Connecticut] in terms of money.”
But Sirota also gives Sen. Clinton credit for simply doing a better job of playing politics — supporting the war without appearing to be an apologist for President Bush.
“Clinton has been more careful about that,” he said. “She’s just played it smarter.”
So is Sen. Clinton going to be able to keep the netroots at bay simply by being a better weasel than other pro-war Democrats?
Sirota says no, that it will be easier for progressives to take her on in 2008 than it would be to take her on now in New York.
But Tasini isn’t so sure that analysts like Sirota are right.
“I suspect that they don’t want to confront publicly someone that they might want to have access to,” he insists.
He points out that, according to a recent Marist poll, 70 percent of New York Democrats consider Iraq to be a major Election Day issue and 62 percent say they’re more likely to vote for an anti-war candidate than a pro-war one. Many of them just don’t know that Hillary is pro-war and that there’s an alternative.
Still, it doesn’t look like the cavalry is coming anytime soon.
MoveOn.org’s political action committee conducted a poll of its members in the Connecticut Senate race that helped launch the Lamont candidacy; it refuses to take a similar poll of its members in New York, much to Tasini’s chagrin.
“Is this really a Democratic organization that wants to know what its members think?” he asks. And with little cash on hand (somewhere around $150,000), the campaign doesn’t even meet NY1’s standard to qualify for a debate.
As Hillary Clinton rolls to victory in her Senate reelection, progressives around the country might want to ask themselves: If the anti-war Left can’t take on Hillary now, when will they ever be able to?
After all, Tasini says: “This is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.”
They have less than a month and counting to come up with an answer.
Ryan Sager’s forthcoming book is “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”