11.23.09

What Made Joe Bitter

As the Senate debates the health-care bill, Joe Lieberman is relishing his role as roadblock. Peter Beinart on how one of the most unpredictable senators became just another right-wing pol.

Once upon a time, Joe Lieberman was interesting—not always correct, in my view, but interesting. He was interesting because he thought for himself. On most issues, most senators line up pretty automatically with their party. A few others, the moderates—often Southern or prairie Democrats or Northeastern Republicans—split the difference: If Democrats want to spend $1 billion on some domestic program, and Republicans want to spend nothing, they furrow their brows, beat their breasts and then propose spending $500 million. The moderates generally annoy party activists and impress Washington pundits who view moderation as good in and of itself. But they’re just as conventional as the liberals and conservatives. It’s no more interesting to be predictably purple than it is to be predictably red or blue.

It’s not just that Lieberman’s arguments make no sense. They show that he’s morphing from an iconoclast into just another right-wing pol.

That’s why Lieberman stood out. On domestic issues, he was fairly liberal: supporting abortion rights, a larger social safety net and environmental protection. On foreign policy, he was a fervent hawk. He didn’t split the difference between left and right: He idiosyncratically mixed and matched. He hewed to an older ideological tradition—both pro-welfare and pro-warfare—that flourished in the industrial north before Vietnam. That’s what made Lieberman interesting. And that’s why his declaration last week that he would filibuster a “public option” on health-care reform is so depressing. It’s not just that his arguments make no sense. They show that he’s morphing from an iconoclast into just another right-wing pol.

In the 1960s and 1970s, interesting senators weren’t quite so rare. On the one hand, you had liberal hawks like Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey and Washington state’s Henry “Scoop” Jackson. They embodied the worldview of the Cold War labor movement: pro-guns and pro-butter, all at the same time. On the other hand, you had conservative doves from the South like Arkansas’ William Fulbright: men with lousy civil-rights records and no love of government spending, but deep hostility to American military intervention in the third world. Today, a right-wing anti-imperialist like Fulbright would be politically incomprehensible. But Fulbright’s politics were just as coherent as Humphrey and Jackson’s: He embodied an older conservative tradition, rooted in the South, which distrusted grand, government-led efforts at social reform, whether at home or abroad.

Scientists say that America once had lots of quirky, regional species of apples. Now we have a few, homogenized types. The same thing has happened to American politics. We’ve smoothed out the jagged edges. There are liberals and there are conservatives, and there are difference-splitting moderates, and if you know someone’s position on abortion, you can probably predict their position on Afghanistan. Put Scoop Jackson alongside William Fulbright on a cable talk show today and it would be like they were speaking Greek.

There are still a few interesting members of Congress around. Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey, for instance, sees the world the way the Catholic hierarchy does: He’s pro-welfare state, but passionately antiabortion. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, by contrast, sees the world the way Calvin Coolidge did: He wants to radically downsize the federal government—not just the domestic parts, but the military, too.

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But Lieberman was the most prominent iconoclast, at least up until now. For close to a decade, he got nearly perfect scores from the American Public Health Association, which backs a single-payer health-care system, and in lieu of that, the “public option.” Now, all of a sudden, he’s so outraged by a public option that he’s threatening to filibuster any bill that contains it. The arguments he makes on behalf of his new position are remarkably weak: He says the public option will raise costs, even though the Congressional Budget Office has said no such thing, and even though logic suggests that by competing with private insurers, a government plan will actually drive costs down. Some have accused Lieberman of shifting right in order to win backing from the insurance industry in preparation for a 2012 reelection run. But, in fact, he gets relatively little insurance money, and Connecticut politicos mostly think he won’t run.

So why is he doing this? Because he’s bitter. According to former staffers and associates, he was upset by his dismal showing in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. And he was enraged by the tepid support he got from many party leaders in 2006, when he lost the Democratic primary to an anti-war activist and won 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.

The irony is that when Lieberman was officially a Democrat, he was ideologically independent—a living manifestation of the Humphrey-Jackson tradition. Now that he’s technically an independent, he’s becoming a standard-issue conservative. For people who believe—as Lieberman himself once did—in progressive health-care reform, it’s a tragic shift. It’s also boring. Another interesting senator bites the dust.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.