As the final year of this decade of fail draws to a close, everyone with a keyboard is making a list and checking it twice. It’s the hour for picking the winners and picking the losers; the snoozer season when writers can phone it in for a few weeks with top ten drivel and self-serving ratings. For those with an eye on Washington, we are producing a familiar name on lists both favorable and failing: Joe Lieberman.
He kicked off the 21st century as the base play on the Democratic ticket – the guy who was supposed to solidify the Democratic diehards behind former veep Al Gore during his impossible run against the red state calculus that had tilted in strong favor of George W. Bush. He was the guy to whip Clinton’s old guard behind the less charismatic, but no less thoughtful, leader of a new Democratic party. Neither he nor his commander-in-chief-to-be succeeded in either task, little match against a decade of gerrymandered districts and Karl Rove’s timely tactics.
Just under ten years ago, Joe Lieberman was the guy you went to if you needed Democrats on your side. Now, they can barely speak his name without spitting it. Particularly as we near the endgame for Barack Obama’s healthcare initiative, Lieberman (I-CT) may be a pariah in cocktail party circles but his careful manipulation of the letter beside his home state has assured his spot as a power broker in the United States Congress.
This week was one where his handiwork was particularly characteristic. With a single press conference he catapulted himself from the annoying periphery of voices regurgitating talking points to the place where he always seems to end up – the center of the action. No sooner was a compromised healthcare package announced by Harry Reid’s Democratic caucus that was it torpedoed effortlessly by a short public statement of opposition by Lieberman. Within hours of his remarks, party leaders were hurriedly meeting and scurrying about, with Joe’s smug smile to greet them across the table.
A few days later, the public option is out. Early Medicare buy-in is out. And several previously core provisions of a healthcare reform bill already neutered in committee now seem to be on the table. Lieberman is playing coy, saying he is “moving towards a yes vote.” The store might be sold outright by the time the deal is done, leading some on the progressive side of the supposed Democratic supermajority to squeal. Even some used to the pariah label themselves are calling for an outright revolt, with former DNC chairman (and real-life doctor) Howard Dean calling for the Senate bill to be killed.
Indeed it would seem that Lieberman holds all the cards in Washington and by the masterful straddling of the aisle until the last possible second, he has usurped even the President of the United States as the sole man in America who says what will or will not happen.
If only Lieberman were that man.
But behind the eye popping headlines is the truth that Lieberman is just an instrument of a larger machine, a pawn in a game with stakes so high the odds are always certain. Were his stand against the Medicare buy-in the principled stance of a deficit hawk holding firm, Democrats would have great cause for concern with Joe Lieberman. The problem is, he doesn’t believe a bit of it. Just this past September – three months ago – he said straight into a rolling camera that he believed that people should be able to buy into Medicare at the age of 55.
What caused the flip-flop? In September, public universal healthcare looked like it could really happen. Now with the negotiations dragged on by Republicans and Reid’s ineffective caucus coming up short in the red zone, the public option is thoroughly defeated. With that obstacle down, Lieberman is free to turn on the firehose to water down the bill even more. While Obama takes a bath in the negotiating room, the bill soaks up the excess until it poses little danger at all to the status quo.
How did the status quo effect such a dramatic change of heart in Joe Lieberman? Through over $1 million in donations from health insurance in this decade. During his last campaign in 2006, he ranked second in the Senate for health insurance donations. And his home state is headquarters to many of the nation’s leading insurance companies, employing 22,000 in Connecticut. The private health insurance system that raked in billions keeping America sick during the last ten years paid for Lieberman’s independent run.
And this year, that investment is looking awfully sound.
But before Joe Lieberman is vilified as the Judas Big Healthcare bought to kill the public option, before he makes the tops of the movers and the bottoms of the shakers, we should consider his company.