Lloyd Bentsen, who passed away last week at the age of 85, was no liberal.
After a hiatus from politics, the South Texan hit the campaign trail in 1970 to challenge and defeat incumbent U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough in the Democratic primary. Yarborough was then, and remains today, an icon of yellow dog Democrats.
In the Senate, as chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, Bentsen was an advocate of supply-side economics. As treasury secretary in the first Clinton administration, he was a champion of free trade.
But Bentsen was no closet Republican. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights and voted against the 1991 resolution authorizing the use of military force to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. His partisanship was on full display as Michael Dukakis' running mate during the 1988 presidential race.
But party was rarely the defining issue for Bentsen. He was a mainstream, independent thinker who put the interests of his constituents first.
Independent-minded politicians willing to do right by their constituents are an increasingly rare breed in both parties. But among Democrats, they are positively an endangered species. And an alliance of far-left interests wants to push them into extinction.
Consider another South Texas Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo. In March, Cuellar faced off in the Democratic primary against former friend Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio, against whom he scored an agonizingly close and contentious victory two years ago. The principal campaign issue then was Rodriguez's lack of service to the southern part of the district, where residents contemptuously referred to the incumbent as "Zero" Rodriguez.
The 2006 rematch should have been a yawner. But Cuellar raised the ire of so-called progressive Democrats by voting to repeal the estate tax and in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement votes, in the tradition of Lloyd Bentsen, that served the interests of his border district.
For this heresy, and for earning the endorsement of the conservative Club for Growth, the netroots a wedding of the power of the Internet with traditional grass-roots organizations mounted a nationwide campaign to take Cuellar down.
In the months leading to the primary, the netroots poured as much as $500,000 into Rodriguez's coffers in the end, to little effect. Cuellar won with 53 percent of the vote, increasing his margin of victory over Rodriguez from 2004 in 10 out of 11 counties in the district and pulling in an astonishing 84 percent in his home of Webb County.
Perhaps Cuellar does represent the interests of his district. But the results didn't deter netroots activists intent on enforcing left-wing discipline on Democratic candidates.
Markos "Kos" Moulitsas, a leader of the netroots effort, wrote on his blog, "So we didn't kill off Cuellar, but we gave him an ass whooping where none was expected."
Now the netroots bullies, intolerant of independent thought, have set their sights on Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Businessman Ned Lamont, the new darling of the Kos and MoveOn.org camp, recently explained his decision to challenge Lieberman to James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal:
"When Congressman Murtha stood up and said 'Stay the course' is not a winning strategy in Iraq, it was Sen. Lieberman who took the lead and took some of the Republican talking points ... and wrote the piece in The Wall Street Journal, 'Our Troops Must Stay.'"
For tax cuts, for free trade or against an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq? Then you are tagged for political extinction by ideologues who are driving the Democratic Party away from the American mainstream.
Could Bentsen win a Democratic Senate primary today? Would he be considered as a running mate for a Democratic presidential candidate? Could Lieberman, who was Al Gore's running mate only six years ago, make it onto a Democratic ticket? Not a chance.
And if the netroots ideological enforcers ever do succeed in liquidating the Bentsens, Liebermans and Cuellars, the Democratic Party will take a headlong plunge into political irrelevancy.