Understanding Joe Lieberman

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THE PLANK DECEMBER 14, 2009

Understanding Joe Lieberman

I've been saying for a while that Joe Lieberman posed the greatest threat to health care reform. Unlike the rest of the party, he has no political interest in the passage of reform or a successful Obama presidency, and he seems to view the prospect of sticking it to the liberals who supported his Democratic opponent in 2006 as a goal potentially worth sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of Americans to fulfill. (Of course, the irony is that Lieberman is actually vindicating his 2006 critics and undermining his own defense from that time, which revolved around him being a progressive Democrat on domestic policy issues.)

Still, I feel that liberals are somewhat overreacting to Lieberman's turn against health care reform. It's true that Lieberman refused to take part in negotiations with Reid over the compromise, suggested he could support the bill presuming a positive CBO score, and then decided to stick in the knife. However, I don't think that health care reform is in peril. If Harry Reid decided to submit to Lieberman's demands, the health care bill would basically revert to what the Senate Finance Committee produced. That's still a major piece of legislation. Expectations among liberals have risen since then, so the come-down is understandable. But this isn't the end of reform.

Now, the counter-argument is that Lieberman may well come up with a reason to back away from that bill as well. Given his obvious bad-faith negotiation, that's certainly a danger. But Olympia Snowe is not negotiating in bad faith, and she, unlike Lieberman, actually seems to care about health care reform. So even if you revert to something like the Senate Finance bill and Lieberman tries to stab you in the back, you can still pick up Snowe. (A fact that itself reduces the chance that Lieberman will attempt a second act of sabotage -- why try to knife health care reform if you can't kill it?)

I also think liberals, myself included, might be driving ourselves a little nuts trying to divine Lieberman's motives. He keeps flip-flopping and explaining his shifts by making demonstrably false claims. What's his game? Why does he keep saying these wrong, uninformed things?

I think one answer here is that Lieberman isn't actually all that smart. He speaks, and seems to think, exclusively in terms of generalities and broad statements of principle. But there's little evidence that he's a sharp or clear thinker, and certainly no evidence that he knows or cares about the details of health care reform. At one point during the 2000 recount, the Gore campaign explained to Lieberman why lowering standards for military ballots would be totally unfair and illegal, and Lieberman proceeded to go on television and subvert the campaign's position. Gore loyalists interpreted this as a sellout, but perhaps the more plausible explanation was that Lieberman -- who, after all, badly wanted to be vice-President -- just didn't understand the details of the Gore position well enough to defend it. The guy was taken apart by Dick Cheney in the 2000 veep debate.

I suspect that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it's not true. If Senator Smith from Idaho was angering Democrats by spewing uninformed platitudes, most liberals would deride him as an idiot. With Lieberman, we all suspect it's part of a plan. I think he just has no idea what he's talking about and doesn't care to learn. Lieberman thinks about politics in terms of broad ideological labels. He's the heroic centrist voice pushing legislation to the center. No, Lieberman doesn't have any particular sense of what the Medicare buy-in option would do to the national debt. If the liberals like it, then he figures it's big government and he should oppose it. I think it's basically that simple.

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posted in: the plank, the treatment, politics, dick cheney, harry reid, joe lieberman

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