Friday, October 30, 2009

The Joe Lieberman Conundrum

There are times when I think the progressive media is just as committed as the mainstream media to avoiding any kind of policy debate concerning health reform.

Talking Points Memo and HuffPost have little discussion of either Democratic proposals or health policy more generally. Progressive media sources actually do very little in the way of promoting any Democratic ideas on health reform. Likewise, they have little information on how the current financing of the health system works, why it costs so much, and why our results on life-span, infant mortality, and other measures of health are so poor compared to other countries. A number of stories about the inhumanity of health insurance companies to their policy-holders have been published by HuffPost. But I'm aware of no reporting on how the corporate strategies of the health insurance companies reinforce their drive to reject legitimate claims from sick individuals.

Instead of discussing health policy, the progressive media focuses on three themes--dissecting the political process, publicizing to right-wing "outrages," and vilifying Democratic "traitors." For most of this week, the focus has been on the Joe Lieberman's "treason." Just as McCain stole the thunder from Obama's convention speech by announcing his nomination of Sarah Palin, Lieberman undercut the progressive euphoria over Harry Reid's support for a public option by declaring the next day that he would filibuster any bill including a public option. Since then, the progressive media has been obsessing about Lieberman's desertion of the Democrats. Why, the progressive media asks, would Lieberman oppose a public option now when he embraced the public option during his 2004 presidential campaign? Why is Lieberman so eager to filibuster now when he's always been suspicious of filibustering in the past? In a way, this is all a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lieberman's "treason" toward the Democratic Party has been a major theme in the progressive media ever since the first emergence of the left blogosphere. But this is Lieberman's most important treason to date. Lieberman's sabotaging the legislative agenda of a Democratic president who's gone out of his way to to be nice to him. Why would he do that?

Glenn Greenwald, Rachel Maddow, and Joe Conason argue that Lieberman opposes health reform for corrupt reasons, either because his wife works for health lobbyists or because the health insurance companies have contributed huge money to his re-election campaigns. Here's Joe Conason:
The Lieberman family's financial ties to the health industry are no secret, yet their full extent remains unknown. During her husband's 2006 reelection campaign, Hadassah Lieberman's employment as a "senior counselor" to Hill & Knowlton, one of the world’s biggest lobbying firms, briefly erupted as an issue, especially because the clients she served were in the controversial pharmaceutical and insurance sectors. Exactly what she did for those clients has never been disclosed.
Also, here's Glenn Greenwald on the Rachel Maddow show discussing Lieberman's ties to the health industry.

But I don't think that Joe Lieberman's ties to the health industry are the issue. The main problem with Lieberman is his bitterness over the re-emergence of an energized Democratic left during the Bush years. I imagine that Lieberman initially thought he had a good shot at the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Lieberman had been the vice-presidential nominee in 2000, he was well-known as a result of his gazillion television appearances, and he had paid his dues. Maybe, Lieberman thought, his time had arrived and he would be able to mount a moderate to conservative challenge to George W.

But it wasn't close. The Iraq War which Lieberman supported was already a failure in early 2004 and the left blogosphere had become the focal point of opposition to the war within the Democratic Party and liberal/left constituencies. Lieberman may have been a long-time Senator from the nearby state of Connecticut, but he didn't even get 9% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and he had become the butt of constant ridicule from people on the left (including me). Lieberman began turning away from the Democratic Party in his heart when Ned Lamont launched a successful primary challenge in 2006. Barack Obama and the rest of the establishment Democrats might have campaigned for Lieberman but that didn't make any difference. For Lieberman, the Democrats were now the party of Daily Kos, Ned Lamont, and Amy Goodman rather than the party of Al Frum, the DLC, and neo-liberalism. As he showed during the 2008 presidential campaign, Lieberman was quite willing to turn against the Democratic Party establishment that had sought to save him. But it was only because the establishment was heading up a popular political party that he now hated.

The progressive media needs to understand how satisfying the idea of filibustering the public option probably is to Joe Lieberman. Progressives humiliated Joe Lieberman in 2004 and humiliated him again in 2008. Joining with the Republicans to filibuster the progressive highlight of the health reform package is probably the most bitterly satisfying thing that Joe Lieberman has done in the last ten years. Because of the rise of the progressive movement, Joe Lieberman went from respected insider to punching bag overnight.

And now the punching bag is punching back--where it really hurts by the way.

But that's the way it goes. If Lieberman sinks the current legislation, we'll just have to find another way. Bitter guys like Lieberman almost always lose in the end.

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