Joe Lieberman's Lonely Stand

Joe Lieberman's Lonely Stand

By Ruben Navarrette - November 11, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- What does the Iraq War have to do with the health care debate? More than you might think.

In politics, what goes around comes around. And it's coming around pretty quickly in the Senate, where Joe Lieberman is flexing some political muscle in the health reform discussion -- and aggravating his former Democratic colleagues who helped drive him away from the party.

Now an independent, Lieberman has vowed to support a GOP-led filibuster of legislation that contains a government-financed public option for those who lack private insurance.

"The public option plan is unnecessary," Lieberman said recently on "Fox News Sunday." "It has been put forward, I'm convinced, by people who really want the government to take over all of health insurance. ... I think that would be wrong. ... If the public option plan is in there, as a matter of conscience, I will not allow this bill to come to a final vote."

Thus, Lieberman could complicate the process by which Senate Democrats hope to reconcile their health care reform bill with the radically liberal bill passed by the House. He is no more enamored with Majority Leader Harry Reid's proposal in the Senate for an "opt out," where states could choose not to participate in a government-funded public option.

If nothing else, Lieberman changes the mathematics in the Senate. Now Reid needs the support of all 58 Democrats, including those from conservative states where voters are leery of a public option, plus the support of the Senate's other independent: Bernie Sanders of Vermont. And, even with all those votes, Reid still needs the vote of one Republican to avoid a GOP filibuster. The likely candidate is Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. Democrats were always going to have a difficult time rustling up votes for a government takeover of the health care system. But Lieberman has made that task much harder.

All of this is quite poetic given how badly the Democratic establishment has treated him. In 2006, Connecticut Democrats denied him the party's nomination over his vocal support for the war in Iraq. Instead, they nominated political newcomer Ned Lamont. He was trounced in the general election by Lieberman, who ran as an independent. Lamont had campaigned with the support of many of Lieberman's former Democratic colleagues, including Chris Dodd, John Kerry and Harry Reid. It was obviously a miscalculation on their part.

Democrats may have had the right to be disappointed by Lieberman's stance on Iraq. But they couldn't have been surprised. They've known for years that Lieberman isn't afraid to go his own way. In the past, he has supported school vouchers, questioned affirmative action, and showed a willingness to privatize Social Security -- all of which put him at odds with various factions of the Democratic coalition.

In fact, it's ironic that Lieberman's critics on the left now portray him as a hostage to the insurance industry when, on those issues and others, scores of Democrats remain imprisoned by special interests that make them toe the line.

Still, to many liberals, supporting the war was a bridge too far. It was so closely identified with President George W. Bush that many of those who despised Bush felt obligated to oppose U.S. involvement in Iraq -- and personally attack anyone who supported it. Before long, protesters from radical groups such as Code Pink were picketing outside Lieberman's Senate office.

Now the protesters are back with a vengeance, complaining about Lieberman opposing the public option and bucking the Democratic trend on health care. Twice recently, U.S. Capitol Police officers arrested Code Pink protesters who were trying to occupy Lieberman's office. Other angry liberals are demanding that the Senate leadership strip the renegade -- who still caucuses with the Democrats and votes with them on most issues -- of the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Big mistake. It would only alienate Lieberman more and push him further away from Democrats on other important issues that have yet to come to a vote. It would also draw attention to the fact that Democrats -- who claim to value diversity when they demand that the rest of us practice it -- won't tolerate diversity of opinions within their own ranks. And, above all, it would come across as childish, petty and heavy-handed for Democrats to try to punish Lieberman for breaking from the herd and voting his conscience.

And let's not forget senators, you tried that before. Say, how's that working out for you?

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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Ruben Navarrette

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