Alter: Lieberman, Health Care, and Hurt Feelings

A decade ago, Joe Lieberman was a source of great pride for American Jews. Now Jews (who voted 78 percent for Barack Obama) are debating a critical question: why is Joe such a putz? Tough crowd. "Putz" is a Yiddish word for the male anatomy. Al D'Amato lost his Senate seat to Chuck Schumer in 1998 after he called him one. But Lieberman is wrong if he thinks it's only hard-core lefties who are mad at him. Everyone is tired of how the junior senator from Connecticut is giving acts of conscience a bad name. (Click here to follow Jonathan Alter)

The latest trouble started after Lieberman said on Fox that "as a matter of conscience," he would filibuster any health-care bill with a public option. Flashback: when he ran for reelection in 2006, Lieberman bragged about his MediChoice plan. It would "allow anybody in our country to buy into a national health-insurance pool like the federal-insurance pool we federal employees and members of Congress have." That sounds suspiciously like—ahem—the public option. What's changed? (Article continued below...)

Lieberman says it's the deficit. He now opposes any kind of public option because of cost. But the Congressional Budget Office reports the opposite—that a government-run option would save money by providing competition. Maybe the CBO is wrong. Maybe it won't save money. Who knows? So let's stipulate that we have no clue about how much any of this will cost, long term.

That sounds familiar. In Afghanistan we have no idea how much a "government takeover" will cost. Does that keep Lieberman from being gung-ho about escalation? No. Like other neocons, he thinks the deeper principle at stake trumps short-term cost calculations that are probably wrong anyway. But when it comes to health care, restraining hypothetical spending is suddenly a matter of conscience. Spare me. For Lieberman the only principle at stake is his stake in looking principled.

To conservatives. Lieberman doesn't care how liberals view him. He's given up on them after all the mean things they've said. Some of his oldest supporters voted for Ned Lamont in Connecticut's 2006 Democratic primary! Unforgivable! He's technically an independent and still votes for some liberal things because he wants to get reelected in 2012. But Joe's heart is with the right.

It has been for a while. Longtime students of sanctimony remember Lieberman kicking Bill Clinton when he was down during the Lewinsky scandal in 1998 and pandering to the Pentagon by supporting the counting of spoiled military ballots in 2000 (helping doom Gore-Lieberman in the recount). His low point came at the GOP convention in 2008. It was one thing to ditch the Democrats and sincerely support his old friend John McCain. But how about his hearty endorsement of Sarah Palin as fully qualified to be president? Now that's conscience.

Senate colleagues say Lieberman is consumed by his resentment toward liberals. Recently he saw Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, in which Germans are scalped and incinerated by vengeful Jews. He publicly pronounced it "cathartic." For Lieberman, defeating health-care reform would be the fulfillment of a revenge fantasy.

I'm not a public-option-or-bust guy. There's enough good stuff in the legislation that the loss of a public option, while damaging, wouldn't wreck the whole thing. I'm a bill-or-bust guy. If we need to fix the legislation later—Social Security was fixed several times after enactment in 1935—we can. But failure is not an option. I don't get the impression that Lieberman agrees. If the public option is defeated, he'll find something else to complain about. The only leverage Harry Reid has over him is the threat to take away his committee chairmanship. It may yet come to that. History is littered with big moments that turned on the pettiness of small men. Now the fate of the most ambitious social legislation in a generation may come down to the hurt feelings of one senator.

Before I let Lieberman go, one more question: a hypothetical that, unfortunately, is all too real in thousands of cases. Imagine a Connecticut family in which the breadwinner loses his job and his insurance. Then his kid gets cancer. He now has a choice—he can sell his house to raise money for the expensive treatment or launch a series of bake sales. That's the meshugeneh country we live in now, Joe. We can either stay here or move to a better, more humane place. Why isn't that "a matter of conscience"?

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