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Why don't we have more Joe Liebermans?


My sense that Joe Lieberman was just blustering last week isn't looking too good as the self-styled independent wanders around town reiterating his threat to filibuster health-care reform. The Senate leadership and the White House continue to deny any concern -- it's just "Senator Lieberman being Senator Lieberman," one aide told Newsweek -- but who knows?

This stuff is hard to predict. The problem isn't that Lieberman's behavior is so weird. It's that everyone else's behavior is so weird. Health-care reform is not a 70-vote bill. It's a 60-vote bill. Which means that any and every senator could conceivably be the crucial vote. Any and every Democratic senator could book themselves unlimited slots on the Sunday shows by voicing some doubts, and any and every Republican could get some TV time by edging toward the bill. This is a moment that can raise profiles, secure priorities, bring money to your home state. Centrality brings opportunity.

Lieberman is a good example. For instance: After breaking with the Democratic Party over national security, killing the public option would cement Lieberman's status as a conservative hero. The Republican Party is angry and scared right now, and Lieberman is in the peculiar position of being able to grab them emotionally even as he's not fully aligned with them substantively. In a field that includes loose cannons like Sarah Palin and such dull middleweights like Mitt Romney, Lieberman might be the only Republican with both conservative and independent appeal, at least in theory. Maybe -- just maybe -- he wants to switch parties and see where 2012 takes him? Probably not, of course, but isn't it worth keeping the option open, particularly if it means sticking it to the Democrats at the same time?

There are 20 senators who could spin similar, albeit less grandiose, tales of the riches and rewards that could come from stepping into a central role on health-care reform. But most of them don't. Indeed, the reason we always end up talking about a small handful of skeptics is that the vast majority of senators don't grandstand or grumble or make unexpected threats. The Senate is thought to be a body of egotists and blowhards, but the real surprise is how few of them are brave enough, or cynical enough, or ambitious enough, to maximize their leverage.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 3, 2009; 8:14 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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The last thing that America needs is more Joe Liebermans who put the interests of Israel first and America last. Lieberman has never met an enemy of Israel's : Iraq, Iran, Syria, etc., that he didn't want the U.S. to attack, no matter how many American soldiers die ( 4400 in Iraq ) or whatever the cost ( $3 trillion estimated cost for Iraq ). We need more politicians who put American interests first, like Cong. Ron Paul, one of a few members of Congress willing to stand up to the wealthy, vicious Israel lobby.

Posted by: raygordon2008 | November 3, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Looks like Lieberman won't filibuster after all. Looks like Lieberman was really making a threat to filibluster.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | November 3, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

So, Ezra, you're agreeing with the majority of us who think Lieberman is an egotistical blowhard who is cynical, ambitous and "brave" enough to maximize his leverage? ;-)

I'm willing to bet good money he'll never get re-elected in CT. His polls are horrendously low, and his actions will ensure he has minimal Democratic support, and likely very little Independent support.

Also, if he messes up health care, liberals will be howling and galloping over to CT to take him down. 2006 will be nothing compared to 2012.

The reason most folks aren't "brave" enough(or "dumb" enough, really) is because it is a high risk game he's playing. He may get something in return, but he's played this hand too many times before. It is highly unlikely he will get much, if anything, in return.

My guess is that the Democrats will finally call his bluff.

Sure, Joe may switch parties, or still mess up the bill for some personal reason no one understands, but it will cost him everything he holds dear in the Senate.

Maybe they'll give him something on the Republican side if he switches over or caucuses with them (so he can remain "independent"), but it is very doubtful it will work out in the end. Moderates are not welcome in the Republican party. And Lieberman would have RINO attached to his name every a Republican talks about him.

Posted by: JERiv | November 3, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

You see, Ezra, with Joe its always about Joe. "What can you do for me?" and never "What can I do for you?" As the previous poster said, I don't wish to have anymore Joe Liebermans in Congress. I don't wish to have any senator or congressman who always puts himself first in the discussion.

Posted by: pdt278 | November 3, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Joe Lieberman isn't acting the way he's acting because of some keen plan to maximize his importance as a legislator. He's doing it because he's a small man trying to act big IN ALL THINGS and he's just hit upon this strategy by being himself.

He didn't use this strategy during the Clinton years, then he was a moral scold. He didn't use this strategy as Gore's VP, then he was an ambitious party-line Democrat. During the GW Bush years, he was bipartisan cover.

I think he's calculated that being a Fox News martyr (for he will surely be kicked out of his committee's chair if he torpedos health care) collecting a lobbyists paycheck is a better gig than representing the people of Connecticut and that's the direction he's headed.

As James Fallows said today on his blog on another topic, "talk about "any sensible society" of course leads us into the realm of what is fancily known as counterfactual theorizing". Stop trying to make sense of Joe Lieberman's decisions as optimal legislative and electoral gambits (Fred Thompson didn't win anything in 2008, but he did land Paul Harvey's old radio gig at millions of dollars a year, did he have a good or bad strategy in the election?) and start trying to understand human nature.

Nobody does a better job of reporting the details of this health care debate than you Ezra but you need to calculate less 'common sense' into your punditry. It's not that common and human nature ends up having many characters do things that don't rationally lead to optimal results in game theory. You've reported on a lot of these concepts - people remembering bad information at higher rates than good information (Lieberman's 2004 presidential run **cough**) but I don't see it accounted for in your predictions.

Add some evolutionary psychology to your punditry (fight or flight, persistence of bad information in memory, denial) and I think you'll hit the mark more often, especially with your remarkably deep foundation of facts and original and accurate reporting.

Posted by: jamusco | November 3, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

As a long-standing resident of CT I can assure you that Joe Lieberman has a snowball's chance of winning when his term is up.

Even he seems to sense this, although it's admittedly hard to tell because his
MO is to straddle all available positions with his singular egotistical habit of trying to have his cake and eat it to.

Bottom line is that he should do all the citizens of CT a favor and resign today.

Posted by: wiltonsjs | November 3, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Where it will take him in 2012? Didn't you read what happened when McCain wanted Lieberman as VP? Did you listen to talk radio last summer when conservartives thought Lieberman might be VP?

Hint: He is 100% unacceptable to the conservative base. As well he should be, they know his record and know he can't be trusted.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | November 3, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Why don't we have more Joe Liebermans? Because two-facedness is considered a pre-existing condition, and therefore most of those afflicted by it die young.

Posted by: laboo | November 3, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

There are few national figures as detested as Holy Joe among rank and file Democrats. As Hopeful9 pointed out, the Republican right-wing (sorry, that's redundant) would not accept Joe when McCain wanted him as a running mate. They only like him when he's throwing a wrench in Democratic plans. I believe Joe is prepping for his next job as a lobbyist.

Posted by: durangodave | November 3, 2009 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Too bad you can't vote to recall Senators.

Posted by: jeirvine | November 3, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Yes, thank goodness they suck slightly less than Lying Joe.

Posted by: StoicJim | November 3, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

why there are not more joe liebermans...

martin buber recounted an old chasidic tale of a man who aspired to be just as holy as Moses, but could never succeed.
he went to the tzaddick, and said, "what is the point of trying? what is the point of going matter how hard i try, i cant be as good as Moses."
the tzaddick said, "if G-d wanted another Moses, He would have created one. but He wanted you instead."

so if G-d wanted another joe lieberman, He would have created another one.
i guess He figured that one is enough.

Posted by: jkaren | November 3, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Joe is getting OLD. He may not admit it in the rational part of his brain, but he can't be reelected in CT (as a Dem, Rep. or Ind.), and that's in his subconscious.

But he loves attention and the sound of his voice.

He's setting himself up as the contrary voice of cable TV for the last years of his life - well into dementia is fine with him. He's the Newt! He's Buchannan! He's Mary Cheney! He's Sarah Palin! He's McCain, but twice as self-centered!

He should just be ignored, for he's nothing but a troll.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | November 3, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

It's true that Senator Lieberman may see this as a chance to get some Olympia Snowe-like attention, but unlike Snowe, the rationale for his position seems to be evolving from one statement to the next. He also, of course, represents a state that is well stocked with health insurance interests (Hartford is Aetna's corporate headquarters, and Bloomfield is Cigna's health insurance headquarters). The jobs and tax dollars generated by health insurance for the state are substantial, and any senator would doubtless think twice about supporting something as disliked by insurers as a public option

Posted by: wdarmes | November 3, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

"He should just be ignored, for he's nothing but a troll."

Troll, yes. But some trolls should not be ignored. He keeps having to change his position as to why he opposes HCR because he is being called out on it publicly. At some point it is possible his vanity will feel threatened by looking so foolishly inconsistent in his maverickyness. Probably not, but it's possible.

Posted by: jeirvine | November 3, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

It's more plausible to me that the administration caves to Joe (and the other Conservadems he's running interference for) than Obama has the guts to pass this so-called reform through reconciliation.

Posted by: bmull | November 3, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Re: wdarmes@11:19a.m.
"The jobs and tax dollars generated by health insurance for the state are substantial, and any senator would doubtless think twice about supporting something as disliked by insurers as a public option."

Somehow Chris Dodd, despite his other problems, doesn't act threatened. I think it's more a matter of character, with the moralistic scold, as in so many other cases, being the one with less of same.

Posted by: henderstock | November 3, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

It's not just about the public option. It's about the subsidies. He does not want to support a bill that will cost one penny.

From Joe's Hartford Courant editorial on November 1st:

"We need to focus on what is most important in this debate. We can all agree on health care delivery reforms that will make our system much more cost-effective, on health insurance market reforms that will make insurance more affordable and more accessible for millions of Americans, and on reaching out to the millions of Americans who qualify for existing government programs like Medicaid yet are not enrolled.

These are the urgent and essential reforms that I am convinced we — Democrats, independents and Republicans alike — can come together to achieve this year."

That's his definition of expanding access??? Calling those who already qualify for Medicaid and signing them up?

Yes, that is. This is completely consistent with his statement to Don Imus (where he opposed the Baucus bill that did not have a public option):

"This puts us in this position where you say, "On the one hand, what we're about to do on adopting health care reform will reduce the cost of health insurance from what it would otherwise be," and on the other hand you say, "Well incidentally, we're gonna raise your taxes or cut your Medicare to the tune of $900 billion or $1 trillion." And people are beginning to think they that maybe they'd do better holding onto what we have now. If you ask me, I'd say we should really focus on what's been called health care delivery reforms."

Or what he said on CNN on August 23rd:

"Morally, everyone of us would like to cover every American with health insurance but that’s where you spend most of the trillion dollars plus, or a little less that is estimated, the estimate said this health care plan will cost. And I’m afraid we’ve got to think about putting a lot of that off until the economy is out of recession. There’s no reason we have to do it all now."

Posted by: JonShields31 | November 3, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

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