Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I come not to praise Joe Lieberman...

"The rest of the party has a strong incentive to pass health care reform and avoid a 2010 catastrophe. But Lieberman? He's not a Democrat and won't be running on the Democratic ticket in 2012. Moreover, my read on him is that he's furious with the party, resentful of President Obama (who beat his friend in 2008) and would relish a Democratic catastrophe. [...]

I think Lieberman is the one to watch. My guess is that ultimately he'll vote for reform, but he'll do so because the Democrats will scale back their plan and win over Olympia Snowe, making Lieberman's opposition academic. Lieberman won't join a futile filibuster, but if he has the chance to stick in the knife and kill health care reform, I think he'd probably jump at the chance." -- Jon Chait
I started out thinking this way, but the more I've thought about it, the less sure I am that this is true. Lieberman could have tanked the entire Democratic agenda earlier by coming out against the stimulus package back in February. If he wanted to exact his revenge, why not do it sooner to the perceived insult? Or why not just bolt to the Republican caucus altogether, and join them for all cloture motions? Why would he not have bolted the Democrats in 2007, handing the chamber to the Republicans in the process? Indeed, Lieberman seems to be working diligently on climate change and will take the lead in eliminating Don't Ask, Don't Tell. These are two key pillars of the Democratic agenda going forward. All of this doesn't add up to much evidence of all-out treachery.

I can understand the appeal of this argument. Lieberman's argumentation against the public option--to the extent of not letting it come to a vote if it's in the bill--seems excessive. His shifting explanations on the topic don't add up, it's true, but there is a thread that runs through them all. Ockham's razor suggests that Lieberman simply has ideological objections to a public option. His objections aren't compelling, he seems to be grievously misinformed on the issue and while there are some decent arguments against a public option, he's not making them. But I don't really think it would be fair to assume malicious intent on Lieberman's part with the facts that are available.

It seems clear that Lieberman is on board with a combination of mandates, subsidies, and insurance exchanges (or at least that he won't filibuster that bill), but that the public option is a step too far from him. That he would filibuster the whole package because he hates it so much seems like a strange overreaction from a Democrat who has a history of being on the side of reform. It could very well be that the thought of a public option causes him such great anger--or it could be that this overreaction might well be a power play to try to extract something from the Democrats. He has a great deal of leverage now, and he might try to, say, win the White House's support for another term in office, something that is unlikely to happen unless Obama the Healthcare Enactor is in the Hartford band gazebo clapping Holy Joe on the back in 2012. I have no real facts to back this up, but I think it mostly makes sense. Imagine you're Joe Lieberman. You're kind of a hated guy. You sold out to Bush and McCain, two falling right-wing stars. You've pissed off a lot of people, and you're getting trounced by a popular Democrat in the general election polls. Silently voting for cloture and then voting for healthcare doesn't get you anywhere--it's de rigueur for a Democrat. But threatening to hold up the process might get the higher-ups to panic a little bit. Suddenly, the president is asking what he can do to get your support. And you say, "Weeeeeeeeeeell, there is one thing..." Seems plausible to me.

Most Democrats seem to want Lieberman's ass nailed to the wall, but I think that Harry Reid would be wise to simply see how this all plays out. If Lieberman wants something, he'll let it be known and he'll back down if he gets it. Indeed, spewing complete nonsense as a reason to oppose healthcare seems like it can be interpreted as an attempt to get something. And if not, if it truly is ideological and can't be overcome, then I guess some triggers will be on order. My guess is that Lieberman's the only one to worry about on the question of cloture--Evan Bayh and Blanche Lincoln are both running for reelection next year and so it's definitely in their interest for something to pass, even if they don't both vote for it (I suspect Bayh will). And I don't think Ben Nelson has the guts to stand alone against reform. I mean, he's conservative, but I can't recall a time when he stood alone against the Dems ever. He's always struck me as someone who goes with the flow. Lieberman is the only one with the guts and the possible incentives to gum this up. It should get interesting.

P.S. Oh, and the notion that Lieberman is some sort of loose cannon is laughable. He is not. Some bloggers are throwing this charge around, but Lieberman's moves toward Republican politics have been eminently predictable. After getting dumped by his party in 2006, he moved more toward the other party. This extended so far as to stump for the other party's running mate, and one of the few opposition members with whom he actually has a close relationship. After McCain lost, he started moving back toward the Dems, and was accepted back by the Democratic elites. He must be aware of how he's perceived among Democrats and is employing that to his advantage at this particular moment, but I don't really see a single action in his recent past that is completely inexplicable. Sure, holding a "Czar" hearing is kinda douchey for him to have done, but that's a defining trait of Lieberman's entire career, not just the post-2006 part. But I'm pretty convinced that Lieberman is throwing either a fastball or a curveball here, and not a knuckleball.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.