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12.16.09

Lay Off Joe

The Connecticut senator has been strafed by the blogosphere for his health-care moves. Tunku Varadarajan on how Lieberman actually saved Obamacare.

Once upon a time in a land of obscene wealth, where—shocking to behold—dwelt millions of uninsured men, women and angelic children, there lived an ornery old man, a slippery turncoat, a vile apostate, an immoral pawn of the insurance industry, called Joseph I. Lieberman. He hated health-care reform so much—my, how he hated it!—that each time a compromise was reached that would allow the passage of a momentous, mind-blowingly cool health-care bill, he stomped his foot like some squalid little Rumpelstiltskin and said "NO!"

For his role in the frustration of Obamacare, this Lieberman became the object of high-octane contempt. One after another, apoplectic members of the Health Care Liberation Front stepped forward to denounce him. Ezra Klein, a precocious and excitable blogger, wrote this of Lieberman: "[He] seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score." Our own Lee Siegel, of The Daily Beast, called on Lieberman to " start acting Jewish", making the theologically audacious argument that no true Jew could possibly oppose health-care reform.

Lieberman has become the embodiment of the moral middle—socially liberal and fiscally conservative—and I, for one, accept his word that he is acting in accord with his political conscience in refusing to join the health-care herd.

Lee Siegel: Joe, Start Acting Jewish! And there were others who came forth with their anathema. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger at The Atlantic, likened Lieberman to "a divorced Dad refusing to pay for private school, in part, because it might please his ex-wife." In The New York Times, the peerlessly empathetic Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed piece about a man who might die without adequate health care and tied Lieberman, by implication, to a possible thwarting of a health-care bill that would save this man's life. And today, in an editorial, the Times pilloried him as " The Million-Dollar Man", asserting that the "hypocritical" Lieberman was only doing the bidding of an insurance industry to which he was beholden—having taken "more than $1 million from the industry over his Senate career." (Here, I can't resist two questions: Why are the editorials of the Times, the world's most influential newspaper, always picayune, never magisterial? And how much money has Harry Reid taken from trial lawyers over the course of his Senate career? Click here.

In light of all this hot air and hysteria, I write today in defense of Joe Lieberman. Some readers of the Beast who also read The Wall Street Journal may recall that I have not always written kindly of the man. In fact, I once wrote of him most unkindly, in a piece titled " I Can't Stand Lieberman." But that was in the year 2000; times, and Lieberman himself, have changed. And so has my opinion. Witness his statement yesterday, in the face of charges that he had flip-flopped on the Medicare buy-in: “the party platform was to suggest one way to reform health care was to allow 55 to 65 year olds to buy into Medicare. That's a very stressed age group when you don't have insurance. But a lot of things have changed in nine years.” The U.S. government, he said, was then running a surplus, not a deficit, and Medicare wasn't on the verge of imminent bankruptcy. Lieberman evolves: the very definition of intelligent life on the planet.

First, a little recap: Lieberman was jettisoned by the liberal establishment in favor of Ned Lamont in 2006 because he wouldn't renounce a war that most of them had also voted for, even though he's mostly a conventional Democrat on domestic and economic issues. Driven by the juice-box blogosphere, the establishment pursued a vendetta against him—even after he won reelection on his own heterodox platform—because he didn't suddenly adopt their national-security views. And they continued the vendetta right until the moment when—as it turned out—they needed his vote for the vast, permanent, and destructive entitlement expansion that is health-care reform. Uh-oh.

Payback is a bitch, and Lieberman is obviously enjoying a small measure of revenge. How could he not?

Why is Lieberman doing this? From his perspective as a senator from Connecticut, Lieberman has to know that the current health-care legislation does not create a viable environment for any of the major health-care carriers within his state. Competition by your regulator does not yield competition: It yields regulation, and results in the elimination of the private parties who do not get the subsidy from the state, and who suffer from its restrictions. But more to the point, Lieberman has only insisted on stripping out the most radical elements from a deeply radical bill, never challenging its fundamental policy priorities. From that Democratic perspective, I think Lieberman actually saved Obamacare at its moment of greatest weakness. If he hadn't, by his intransigence, given a heat shield to the equally nervous Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Evan Bayh, Jim Webb, and Ben Nelson—and the leadership hadn't acceded to his demands, giving Obamacare a "moderate" gloss—one would have seen an exodus of crucial votes this week, instead of the fait accompli that Obamacare has now become.

There’s a bigger, nonconformist point here as well. Why shouldn’t one senator block the bill, or seek to change it? Why is that in any way an outrage? Lieberman has become the embodiment of the moral middle—socially liberal and fiscally conservative—and I, for one, accept his word that he is acting in accord with his political conscience in refusing to join the health-care herd.

That said, and regardless of what one thinks of the motives behind his actions, Lieberman has performed a great public service by exposing the zealous, ugly side of the left, which can't believe that someone could oppose this project without nefarious motives. So a pack has formed around Lieberman. Elias Canetti, in his Crowds and Power, called it a "hunting pack," one formed "wherever the object of the pack is an animal… too dangerous to be captured by one man alone." The hunting pack "moves with all its force toward a living object which it wants to kill in order subsequently to incorporate it."

The pack is hunting Joe Lieberman. Decent Americans should stand by their man.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)