When Joe Lieberman declared on yesterday's “Face the Nation” that no health care reform bill at all would be preferable to one with the public option, he reminded me less of a wannabe John Boehner than a bombast on the other end of the political spectrum: Howard Dean. Like his former opponent, Dean is no stranger to grandstanding for attention. Less than two months ago, Dean made a similarly extreme proclamation at a DC town hall event I attended, declaring that no reform bill would be better than one without the public option. When asked him to explain himself, however, Dean relented a bit and explained that he’d support passing regulatory reform to prevent insurers from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions.
At the time, as Ed Kilgore pointed out, Dean’s position was remarkably similar to what Lieberman was saying at the time, maintaining that he’d support a bill that just included insurance regulations. Lieberman now needs to be pressed on that very point—not so much with regard to his stance on public option, which is likely just to set off another round of political posturing, but on whether he’d be willing to ditch all the other aspects of the reform bill, many of which he had previously backed. It’s one thing, like many a Senate moderate, to be skeptical about the efficacy of the public option. It’s quite another to throw out the rest of the reform bill with it.
Sure, Lieberman may be showboating and acting out because he still feels betrayed by the Democrats—but if he’s going to be taking such extreme positions, he needs to be forced to defend them. He should be asked point-blank whether he’d actually support continued discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions, for instance, or the bill’s expansion of Medicaid to the poor.
What's more, the Democrats may soon have a broader litmus test for making Lieberman reveal where he really stands: Boehner said today that the House Republicans were getting ready to unveil an alternative reform bill that will doubtlessly gut the current Democratic reform proposals, including the regulatory reforms that Lieberman had supported before his swerve to the right. When the GOP bill drops, the Dems should ask Lieberman if he’d be willing to stand with them instead.
Suzy Khimm is a senior editor at The New Republic.