Just after his reelection, Joe Lieberman claimed a mandate, not for a particular issue but for his personal vision of the popular civic virtue, "bipartisanship." Safely re-ensconced in Washington he's turning his 'mandate' into a cottage industry.
He and Lamar Alexander host a weekly bipartisan breakfast. Their goal, other than giving Lamar something to do, is to end the unpopular "partisan gridlock." In his Iraq speech, George Bush gave a shout-out to pal Joe for proposing a bipartisan working group to help him wage a war all other Democrats oppose.
Bipartisanship is oversold. Among its common byproducts are deficit spending and public corruption. Bush had five big bipartisan bills. Four related to 9/11: the authorizations for Iraq and Afghanistan and the reorganizations of Homeland Security and Intelligence. The fifth was No Child Left Behind. The reorganizations and the wars are disasters; No Child Left Behind, an honorable failure.
The popularity of bipartisanship owes a lot to the tone of politics. Watching the 2006 campaign you felt like you were drowning in sludge. Looking for an end to our long national nightmare on Elm Street voters rejected Freddy Krueger politics in favor of what they called bipartisanship.
If they had meant only to split the difference between the parties they would not have fired only Republicans or sided with Democrats on every issue. What they meant was simple: honesty, civility, reason, substance.
Before the election Lieberman told a war weary public "I hear you" and lashed out at Ned Lamont for saying he, Lieberman, wanted to stay the course. After the election Lieberman went back to scolding Bush's critics for weakening America. Now he's for escalation, which is 'stay the course' on steroids. If he'd whispered the word escalation prior to Election Day, he'd be out of a job.
Near the end of the election, Lieberman gazed into a camera and said, "No one wants to end the war more than I do." Now every Democrat in town wants to end it more than he does. He's again Bush's point man. Their strategy would have us fighting another decade or more.
In the campaign, Lieberman attacked Lamont incessantly, hitting hard at his wealth and "extremism." Most of all, he attacked Lamont for attacking him, painting Lamont as a partisan thug while taking care to groom his own kindly, bipartisan image. Lamont was asleep or else made the mistake of assuming people would see through it. Joe filleted him like a catfish.
It's worth noting that against a total neophyte and a professional card counter, Lieberman got under 50 percent. He pledged that if elected, he'd stay a Democrat. A third of Democrats voted for him. Except for the pledge, many would have gone to Lamont. Democratic senators might have done the same. Lieberman might have lost.
After the election, he told reporters he'd "organize with Democrats" because "my word is my bond" and anyway he had to "for seniority." When asked, he couldn't cite another reason to remain a Democrat. Then on "Meet the Press," he said he might switch parties, though he wouldn't do it "over a single vote." He said he felt "unshackled."
Voters are hungry for substance and civility. The greatest leaders of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi, left no one confused about what they wanted and believed. Yet neither spoke ill of opponents and their opponents were their jailers. We needn't choose between civility and conviction. To counter politicians like Lieberman we need new language.
If Lieberman wants to end gridlock he should have every lobbyist in town to breakfast and slip each one a mickey. But one person's gridlock is another's checks and balances. Voters fired as many Republicans as they could, hoping to place Bush under some form of house arrest. Some gridlock they like.
Using your party as a backboard for your political bank shots is a dangerous game. Democratic senators who stood to applaud Lieberman at a post election caucus were like volcano worshipers. They know he's mad and that if he erupts now, they're toast. But the 2008 Senate field tilts Democratic. With a little margin, they'd need him less. If he doesn't rethink his 'mandate' he could end up like Bush. One still assumes he doesn't want that.
Bill Curry is a columnist for the Hartford Courant. A former counselor to President Clinton, he was twice the Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. His column appears Sundays in the Courant and is available on line at courant.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.