The Center Holds

Can someone please identify for me this Democratic Party that is in the process of giving itself over to a tiny cabal of lupine Leninists bent on forcing a far-left agenda on the American people?

Because I've been looking, looking real hard, for that Democratic Party. After all, it's the one that has been described repeatedly by those who argue that if Joe Lieberman loses next Tuesday, it will mean the death of moderation in the party.

But I can't find it. Instead, when I went and looked, here's what I found.

The Senate Democratic caucus consists of 44 members. With advice and assistance from our intrepid associate Web editor, Alec Oveis, the in-house electoral politics junkie, I decided to define some categories.

Journalistic shorthand usually calls Democratic senators either liberal or moderate. But in fact, they can be placed into three distinct groups: Liberals, Moderates, and In-Betweens. The Tweeners straddle the divide and sometimes vote this way, sometimes that way (Hillary Clinton is the most notable Tweener, and there are others, enough so that they constitute a category unto themselves). So how many Democrats fall into each category?

You start with their National Journal numbers -- specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues.

I use 90 in the above hypothetical for a reason: Just as a 90 got you an A in college, it seems to me that a 90 makes you a real, dyed-in-the-wool lib. So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten?

Try four: Ted Kennedy (96.7), Jack Reed (95.2), Barbara Boxer (94.3), and Paul Sarbanes (91). There are a couple B-plusses (Tom Harkin and Frank Lautenberg), and a passel of B's, but just four 90's. (And, as regards conservative support scores, Republicans, somewhat surprisingly, have just three 90's: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80's.)

So let's lower the bar a bit. Let's say that a score of 80 makes one a presumptive Liberal. But: Let's also remember that numbers aren't everything. Just as -- to go back to college again -- the final exam was usually about 50 percent of your grade, so too should these liberal support numbers be measured against other factors.

A senator can have a liberal voting record but choose to work on issues or make public declarations that emphasize a more moderate tilt. Likewise, all votes are not created equal, so one or two major votes or issues -- Iraq, obviously -- can be worth the weight of several more minor votes (and remember, most votes aren't controversial at all).

For example: Ron Wyden and Joe Biden have almost exactly the same scores -- 80.8 and 80.2, respectively. But Wyden voted against the Iraq war resolution, and Biden voted for it. Biden is obviously well known for his hawkish position on Iraq, while Wyden's recent emphasis has been on a progressive tax plan on which he unfortunately can't get leadership to give him the time of day. So I'd call Wyden a liberal (even if he wouldn't), and Biden a Tweener.

Likewise: Robert Byrd has a pretty low liberal support score of 65.5. He's voted to confirm John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and he votes the conservative position on most social issues. So according to the numbers, he's a solid Moderate. However, his leading role as an Iraq war critic moves him to the Tweener category.

OK, you get the idea. So here, to me, is how it shakes out. Of the 44, I call 16 Liberals, 14 Moderates, and 14 Tweeners. Obviously, some of this is subjective, so for the sake of transparency, and so everyone can pick me apart, here's my breakdown (deviating from style and using last names only, for the sake of speed):

Liberals: Kennedy, Reed, Boxer, Sarbanes, Lautenberg, Harkin, Durbin, Kerry, Mikulski, Levin, Leahy, Feingold, Dayton, Dodd, Wyden, and Murray (barely, but she's an 81.3 and is best known, to me at least, for pushing Plan B).

Tweeners: Biden, Clinton, Rockefeller, Akaka, Kohl, Reid, Schumer, Cantwell, Menendez, Feinstein, Dorgan, Byrd, Stabenow (high-ish score of 86.3, but affiliated with the DLC), and Obama (82.5, but has challenged some liberal orthodoxies in a high-profile way, e.g. his recent religion speech, and he voted for the tort reform bill, which can fairly be called a significant vote).

Moderates: Carper, Bayh, Inouye (surprisingly low 69.5), Lincoln, both Nelsons, Bingaman, Baucus, Salazar, Pryor, Conrad, Landrieu, Johnson, and Lieberman.

So if Lieberman loses, the Senate Democratic Caucus could be -- horrors! -- down to just 13 moderates. And it seems to me based on what's been reported so far of Lamont's views that the Senate will gain not a Liberal, but a Tweener, if he's sworn in.

And looking beyond Connecticut, we see quite clearly that if the Democrats retake the Senate, they will do so by adding to the complements of Moderates and Tweeners. This is partly by accident, because of the states where they need wins. But it is also very much by design: Chuck Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, consciously recruited many moderate candidates.

Bob Casey of Pennsylvania? A Tweener at the very least, and probably a Moderate. Jim Webb in Virginia, were he to pull it out? Definitely a Moderate. (By the way, both of these fellows have strong support in the allegedly intolerant blogosphere.) Harold Ford in Tennessee? Tweener or Moderate, but no Liberal. Claire McCaskill in Missouri? She's fairly Liberal, but coming from a red state, she's a likely Tweener. Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island? He was the establishment candidate in the primary, with one opponent to his left; could be a Liberal, but could end up a Tweener. Jon Tester and Jim Pederson, of Montana and Arizona respectively, are interesting cases. Tester is a Brian Schweitzer-type populist, which means economically liberal but socially quite conservative. Pederson is "mainstream Democratic," says Jennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report. But the overriding fact in both their cases is that they are from states in which a Democrat can't get by on Teddy's voting record and thus would not likely swell the Liberal ranks. Indeed, of the eight Democratic challengers who have a shot, just one would very clearly do that, Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Although Cook warns: You never know how somebody's going to vote until they start voting.

Let's say hypothetically, then, that the proverbial tsunami hits and all eight become United States senators, along with Lamont. In that case, it's possible that the Senate Democratic Caucus will have more Moderates than Liberals!

It's quite true that over the long term, the number of centrists in both parties has decreased -- the Democrats lost virtually all of their Southerners, for example, over the last few cycles. Though a lib myself, I recognize that the Democrats couldn't win many elections if they had nothing but people with my beliefs. It would be a great thing for them to have senators from states like Missouri and Montana, and no Democrat can win in Missouri or Montana supporting left-ish positions on social issues, or seeming anti-military or insufficiently pious. Finally, it is a fact that the Senate needs people who are effective at cutting deals.

But if Joe Lieberman should happen not to be reelected, the Senate will still have such people. And the sun will still rise, and lovers will still love, and poets will still write verse, and crime in the District will still increase, and You Tube will still be cool even though I wish it would download faster. There's a certain Austrian corporal who I devoutly wish had been a better artist; if he'd made art his career, the world would have been spared much, much pain. But beyond that example, it often turns out that very little hangs on the fate of one man.