Thanksgiving is a time for taking a deep breath and appreciating the under-appreciated. So I thought I would challenge myself this year. Let's take a moment, reflect, and give thanks that Joe Lieberman is in the Senate.
Bear with me here. In the 1990s, I liked Lieberman. Most of his policy positions were reasonable. He was sometimes sanctimonious, but he also pushed Democrats to speak on moral issues important to Americans that many in his party reflexively considered out-of-bounds. (Today, President Obama can freely, eloquently address religion and morality in politics, in part because Lieberman paved the way.)
Lately, though, like many others I puzzle over what brought Lieberman to his current pass: standing alone, outside a party structure, antagonizing Democrats seemingly just because that's what he does - and, of course, now threatening to bring down the whole health care reform effort.
I'm not a fan of psychoanalyzing politicians, but Lieberman is a special case. He appears to be motivated in part by pure self-regard, uncontaminated even by loyalty to constituents, interest groups or (of course) party. His drift from hawkishness into full-on neoconservatism, for example, clearly has a strong personal dimension: Lieberman views himself as the one man who sees the truth on national security in a party of cautious temporizers. This has some political advantages (except the most important one, getting re-elected) that also play to his ego: In the Republican Party, he'd be unexceptional. As an Independent caucusing with Democrats, Lieberman stands out.
On health care as well, Lieberman's self-regard looks to be a strong motivating factor. Yes, he's protecting the Connecticut insurance industry by threatening to filibuster any bill containing a public option. But there are probably more effective ways to get what he wants, and he clearly relishes being a holdout. The fact that his stance probably hurts his reelection prospects (unlike other Democratic holdouts with more conservative constituencies) only seems to encourage him. As Peter Beinart notes in The Daily Beast, Lieberman is bitter about a series of losses and slights by Democrats - his disastrous showing in the 2004 presidential campaign, the lack of robust party support two years later when he ran for reelection as an independent:
Gradually, this personal alienation has eaten away at his liberal domestic views. His staff has grown markedly more conservative in recent years, and his closest friends in Congress are now Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham. For Lieberman, the personal has become political, and it has pushed him further to the right.
So here's why we should offer a smidgen of thanks he's around. Lieberman offers a window into how the Senate really works, and in some sense only Lieberman allows us to see the true capriciousness of those crazy, arbitrary rules on holds and filibusters. Other Senators routinely block and delay legislation on on behalf of party or special interests. That's just politics. Lieberman shows us how one man's quirks can hijack an entire national agenda.
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