Sen. Joseph Lieberman's abrupt announcement that he will sink the health-care bill if it includes a provision to expand Medicare has spurred a torrent of angry recriminations from Democrats -- and confusion among those trying to divine his motives.
A big issue is all the contradictions. The Connecticut Independent has for years been an ardent champion of the provision he now opposes. Lieberman has also reversed course on the question of filibusters, which he once denounced as a way of holding up legislation. And the same senator who was once critical of his electoral opponent for not exhibiting party loyalty has now fashioned himself into the ultimate rogue agent -- happiest only when the full attention of the political world is on him.
"When carrots no longer work, when you put Senator Lieberman's most significant health care proposal at the heart of reform and he still opposes not just the larger reform but also his own provision, you start to wonder if this man is dealing in good faith," said Paul Begala, the long-time Democratic strategist. "How do you deal with someone who is so committed to opposing health care reform that he will even oppose his own ideas? It's a tall order. And I haven't the slightest idea what the answer is."
The history is right there. On Monday, video surfaced of an interview Lieberman conducted just three months ago with the Connecticut Post in which he specifically endorsed expanding Medicare to those as young as 55.
And that was entirely in character. After all, Lieberman ran for vice president in 2000 on a platform that included a Medicare buy-in, citing its bi-partisan appeal within Congress. He repeatedly touted Medicare during his run for president in 2004. And according to Stan Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster and longtime Connecticut resident, he made the government-run health care system a focal point of his first run for office in 1988.
"The position on Medicare makes no sense to me at all at any level," Greenberg said, "either at the consumer level or in regards to the kind of social spending that he always supported. He always supported Medicare."
The simplest explanation for Lieberman's pirouette is that he is in the pocket of the insurance industry. He has been criticized along those lines since his days as attorney general of Connecticut. Back in 1988, he was dogged for accepting campaign donations from the insurance company Advest Inc. one month after Connecticut Insurance Commissioner Peter W. Gillies had requested an opinion from his office in a case involving the company. Over the course of his career in the Senate, meanwhile, Lieberman has taken more than $1.04 million in campaign contributions from insurance companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But not everyone buys that he is simply doing private insurance's bidding. The opposition comes from a far more personal place, they suggest: a grudge against the party for abandoning him in 2006 and not supporting him more fully in 2004.
"I think he is smarting from 2004 and 2006," says Greenberg. "I think he believes that he should have been a presumptive strong [presidential] candidate in 04 having been Al Gore's vice presidential candidate. That didn't happen and I think the resentment began then. Then in 2006 the [Ned] Lamont challenge which made him an independent. I know he resents the left wing of the Connecticut Democratic Party and the left wing of national Democrats. I'm sure he doesn't mind putting it to them."
Lieberman has abandoned long held principles in other ways as well, in his war against health care reform. The senator, for example, once bemoaned the use of the filibuster by senators, co-sponsoring legislation in 1994 that would have essentially eliminated the procedural tool. Now he is wielding the filibuster threat himself.
Back in 1988, he spoke disparagingly of the fact that his opponent, Sen. Lowell Weicker, was not really a member of either major party. "Lowell Weicker is not a real Republican," Lieberman charged. "He's not a real Democrat. He does what he wants when he wants to do it." Now, of course, Lieberman is jubilant in his self-proclaimed independence.
If there is any consistency in what the senator is doing, it's his consistent eagerness to derail reform. Lieberman was a thorn in Bill Clinton's side during the last attempt at health care legislation in 1994 -- so much so that pro-reform activists staged a mock trial outside his Senate office, charging him with obstructionism. Capitol Hill police, according to the Hartford Courant, arrested ten people that day, including a protestor in a wheelchair.
And now it looks increasingly like the senator who Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Barack Obama generously kept in the Democratic caucus following the '08 elections will end up upending their primary domestic agenda.
"It's all about his ego and isn't based on any principled understanding of the policy," said one senior Democratic aide. "But the big problem with Lieberman is that his saying that he will vote 'no' gives cover and opens the door to about a half dozen other senators who can now do the same. So this really won't be about Reid having to find one more vote to balance Lieberman. Which means that either health reform is doomed or a bunch more deals will need to be cut watering down the reform even more. I guess the question is, at what point does it all become a wash?"