By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
The contrarian senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, confounded friends and foes by flying in the eye of a snowstorm--alone against even his own crowd as the Senate nears a Christmas Eve vote on healthcare reform. A coalition of Connecticut rabbis couldn't change his mind on opposing the public option and Medicare buy-in. That's roughly the talk and take around town as Lieberman single-handedly forced the Senate Democratic caucus to forego those parts in their version of healthcare reform. Some liberals consider this signing away the heart and soul of the goal. The whole thing is rupturing the "comity" of his divided colleagues. Some Democrats seem surprised, even though the Independent is not one of them.
Lesson learned: Lieberman truly walks alone in a crowd of one. It's in character as part of his political DNA. This latest stand is part of a long pattern of turning on allies when the stakes are high. First President Bill Clinton felt the pain. Then it was Vice President Al Gore when he was running for president. Recently, Barack Obama got the treatment when he was running for president.
High-minded or a high-handed, Lieberman's penchant for high drama surfaced as the one and only Senate Democrat to criticize President Clinton on the floor in the throes of the salacious scandal that seemed to sink his presidency. That pious stand came at a rocky time when Clinton needed every friend he had in Congress. When Clinton was a Yale Law student, he had campaigned for Lieberman running for a state office, but there the senator was, calling for a censure of the president of his own party. Lieberman won kudos from the media for that speech--and an invitation from Al Gore to be his running mate on the 2000 presidential ticket.
During the tense 2000 election recount, Lieberman made a statement on a Sunday talk show that damaged the strategy and interests of his own team. Military ballots from soldiers and sailors overseas were a contentious point, and Gore's lawyers warned they were coming in too late to be counted fairly and squarely. Lieberman asserted the importance of military personnel votes and did not explain the issue of the postmark deadline.
President-elect Obama, overlooking Lieberman's support of his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, in the 2008 presidential election, urged Senate Democrats not to shun him or strip him of a chairmanship about a year ago. With Obama's approval, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invited him to attend the Tuesday lunch caucus. Act like he's on the team, the White House said. The Connecticut Democratic party wasn't so sure, because he had changed parties when he lost the primary last time he was up for re-election in 2006.
In politics, generosity counts for something and so does conscience. Sometimes they are at odds with each other, and in each of these cases Lieberman can reasonably claim he followed his conscience. Ages ago, I got another glimpse of Lieberman's nature on a much smaller scale. My then boyfriend, author Michael Lewis, published a note in The New Republic questioning the senator's chief of staff leaving to become a lobbyist. I was a new speechwriter for Lieberman and got fired for the relationship. "This should be the worst thing that ever happens to you," he said to me. My account was published in The Washington Monthly, edited by Jon Meacham (now the editor of Newsweek.) The pieces of my backstory are all picked up, just as the dots of Lieberman's cool character connected over time.
What happened way back when provides a little perspective whenever the senator seeks he limelight as a "point person," as he put it. Yes, that he surely is: master of turning points and the Senate game-changer, for better or worse.