Back in 2004, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s campaign coined the word "Joe-mentum" after their candidate received a slight uptick in the polls. There were other wordplays of a similar sort, all of which involved inserting the candidate’s first name into a word, replacing a syllable with a similar sound. The point of the exercise, I had thought, was mere cleverness (although they were not so clever that I remember them now) but now we realize it showed us all something about the man: It is all about Joe, no matter what the "it" is.
In 2006, Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut to newcomer Ned Lamont, an anti-war, self-financed candidate who had never held elective office before. Instead of graciously accepting his defeat, Lieberman formed his own political party, artfully called "Lieberman for Connecticut." Maybe they should have called it "Joe-nnecticut" but they weren’t feeling clever in 2006, only efficient. Lieberman won the general election narrowly and, with it, even greater independence from the constraints of party. He caucuses with the Democrats and has retained his committee chairmanship, and the Democrats are reluctant to dismiss him because his vote is needed to break filibusters.
Now, as the health care debate reaches its climax, Sen. Lieberman has decided to make himself the center of attention yet again. He had already indicated his willingness to join a GOP filibuster if there was a public option in the bill. Then a group of moderate and liberal senators fashioned a new approach that killed the public option but introduced the idea of a buy-in to Medicare for people aged 55 or above. Everyone has said they would prefer something different, but everyone has said they can live with this compromise. Except Joe.
One can understand why Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas might be reluctant to vote for the health care bill. She hails from a conservative state that President Obama lost badly in last year’s election and she is up for re-election next year. But, Lieberman is from Connecticut, a state that is about as blue as blue can get. Obama not only won it handily last November, he won it in the primary against next-door neighbor Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps Lieberman’s truculence is not all about his ego. Perhaps he is planning to run as a Republican next time. Who knows? But, by suddenly distancing himself from a policy he has publicly supported in the past, it is hard not to believe that this is mere egotism. Our friend Ben Smith at Politico shows how lame the Senator’s justification for his opposition to the buy-in is: You don’t filibuster over something like this. (We are having technical difficulties with our site right now - I shall provide a link ASAP but everyone should be reading Ben Smith's blog anyway!)
And, for those of us who are hoping the Senate will re-visit the current abortion provisions, capitulating to Lieberman will only make it less likely that the liberals will swallow hard and accept some variant of the Stupak amendment that already passed the House. Sen. Reid can go to pro-life Sen. Ben Nelson and say, "If you support us on the buy-in, we will put Stupak into the manager’s amendment." There is no such way to persuade a dilettante like Lieberman. It is time to threaten: Vote with what the majority of the caucus wants, or you lose your chairmanship and we will enter negotiations with Sen. Olympia Snowe. Better to have a public option with a trigger, and have a Republican Senator vote for the final bill, than to jump through whatever hoops the junior senator from Connecticut chooses to erect.