Figuring out Joe Lieberman

New York Times columnist Gail Collins offers a few choice answers to today’s most pressing question: ‘What is it with Joe Lieberman?’

Lieberman’s apparently successful attempt to hijack health care reform and hold it hostage until it had been amended into something that liberals couldn’t stomach has mesmerized the nation’s political class. This was, after all, a guy who has been a liberal on domestic issues since he was a college student campaigning for John F. Kennedy. A guy who was in favor of the public option, of expanding Medicare eligibility, until — last week.

The theories about Why Joe Is Doing It abound. We cannot get enough of them! I have decided to start a rumor that it all goes back to the 2004 presidential race, when Lieberman not only failed to win any primaries, but was also bitten by either a rabid muskrat or a vampire disguised as a moose.

Other than that, my favorite explanation comes from Jonathan Chait of The New Republic, who theorized that Lieberman was able to go from Guy Who Wants to Expand Medicare to Guy Who Would Rather Kill Health Care Than Expand Medicare because he ‘isn’t actually all that smart.’

It’s certainly easier to leap from one position to its total opposite if you never understood your original stance in the first place, and I am thinking Chait’s theory could get some traction. ‘When I sat next to him in the State Senate, he always surprised me by how little he’d learned about the bill at the time of the vote,’ said Bill Curry, a former Connecticut comptroller and Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Collins favors the not-that-bright theory (‘in part because it’s as good an explanation as any, and in part because it will definitely drive Lieberman nuts’), but she provides greater insight by drawing the comparison between the records of failed national candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, who moved on to useful pursuits, and those of John McCain and Joe Lieberman who are ‘work(ing) out barely suppressed rage by attacking things (they) used to be for.’

Maybe the difference comes from self-image. Lieberman and McCain both thought of themselves as ‘character’ candidates whose success was due to the love and trust of the public, and whose ultimate failure was the work of evil forces beyond their control. Kerry and Gore never believed their success was due to their innate likability. When they lost the presidency, a part of them probably shrugged and remembered that they weren’t all that popular in prep school, either.

Politicians switch direction all the time, but the Lieberman experience has been weird because he doesn’t seem to feel as though he’s changed. He bounds around happily, doing the talk shows, confident that he’s the same independent-minded independent who believes in independence as always. Observers who have known him for a long time feel as though they’re living out a scene in a science-fiction movie when the guy who’s just been bitten by the vampire-moose comes home and sits down to dinner, unaware that he’s sprouting antlers.

I used to cover Lieberman when he was the majority leader of the State Senate in Connecticut. We got along very well, except for one interview, during which he talked about working for J.F.K., and how he kept a Mass card from Robert Kennedy’s funeral to remind him of the principles to which he had dedicated his career. Showing me the card, he remarked casually that he hadn’t looked at it for some time.

I wrote an article using the neglected Kennedy card as a metaphor for Lieberman’s fall from his old ideals into the pragmatic politics of a party leader. He was outraged and wounded, and I believe I apologized.

Collins is now taking back that apology. I think it is Joe Lieberman who needs to apologize to the American people. We voted for health reform, we’ve watched the key parts get tossed for the likes of those insurance folks who so strongly support him, and now we’re feeling a little helpless as he enjoys his position of fame and glory and power.

Lieberman may not be that smart, and he’s certainly not wise. Unfortunately, he is shrewd.

Op-Ed Columnist – Sorry, Senator Kerry – NYTimes.com.

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