Is there a more hypocritical figure in American politics than Joe Lieberman? The Connecticut senator declared Tuesday that he would support a filibuster of any health care reform bill that has a public option -- even the version with the "trigger" compromise accepted by Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe -- because it might cost money.
"I think that a lot of people may think that the public option is free," said Lieberman, one of the Senate's big spenders, in a suddenly frugal mood. "It's not. It's going to cost the taxpayers and people that have health insurance now, and if it doesn't, it's going to add terribly to our national debt."
This from a senator who, as much as anyone, helped run up the national debt since 9/11 by pushing to raise the military budget to its highest level since World War II. It is a budget inflated by enormous expenditures on high-tech weaponry irrelevant to combating terror, such as the $2-billion-a-piece submarines -- produced in his home state of Connecticut -- that he claimed were needed to combat al-Qaida, a landlocked enemy holed up in caves. Lieberman is worried about the impact of a very limited public option on the debt the same week as he and others in Congress passed a $680-billion defense bill larded with pork of the sort the Connecticut senator has always supported.
Lieberman, whose state is also home to insurance companies that are opposed to any consumer-friendly medical coverage alternative, boldly stated that his opposition to even the most limited version of a public option should not be surprising: "I think my colleagues know for a long time that I've been opposed to a government-created, government-run insurance company." Perhaps during his filibuster to prevent a vote on the public option Lieberman can square that position with his longtime support of the massive government-run insurance programs Medicare and Social Security.
Maybe he can also take some time then to justify his strong support for the government bailout of troubled banking and insurance companies that has tripled the federal deficit this year to $1.4 trillion. Is AIG not now a "government-run insurance company," and doesn't the $185 billion of taxpayer money thrown at that sorry enterprise add up to more than twice the yearly cost of the health reform package? And that's without considering the trillions of taxpayer dollars put into play to shore up Citigroup, Bank of America, GM, Chrysler and those other suddenly socialized sectors of American corporate life.
If a scant public choice in health care is so threatening to our way of life, because health care alone must be kept a pristine captive of the most destructive impulses of an unbridled free market, then why not privatize Medicare as well as the publicly financed health care programs for government workers -- including those in Congress like Lieberman, veterans and the active military? And while we're at it, why not revive that Republican fantasy, popular in their ranks just a few years ago, of privatizing Social Security by turning the most effective government program over to the vagaries of the stock market?
I do continue to begrudgingly respect the consistency, if not the wisdom, of libertarians like Ron Paul who oppose all of this big-government intrusion into the economy. At least their belief in the efficiency of the free market, affirmed in opposition to the banking bailout, is not compromised by a willingness to throw trillions in taxpayer dollars into backing the riskiest of corporate bets. But it is not possible to feel anything but loathing for those like Lieberman who vote for every big government program, no matter how wasteful, in support of big business, but draw the line at a program designed to cut medical costs for the ordinary citizens they have been sworn to serve.
Lieberman's threat to thwart a vote on sorely needed health care legislation, complete with a public option that a majority of Americans have consistently supported, should spell the end of his connection with the Democratic caucus. It should also cost him the committee chairmanship he was granted in order to guarantee the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. But a filibuster, which would expose Lieberman and the others as irresponsible wreckers of essential reform, is not the worst outcome. The surrender by the Democratic leadership to this blackmail by the party's disgraced former vice presidential candidate would be a blow from which the party would not deserve to recover.