Clift: Just a Little Respect

A small band of activists organized by MoveOn assembled in front of the White House on Tuesday to protest the de facto presidency of Sen. Joe Lieberman when it comes to deciding health-care policy for the country. Lieberman's refusal to back anything resembling a public option or an expansion of Medicare has liberals in an uproar about the apostasy of a single senator. An Obama supporter in town from Chicago to attend a White House Christmas party called it "one of the worst displays of attention-grabbing behavior by an adult" that she'd seen in public life.

What did Al Gore see in this man other than the fact that he took to the Senate floor to repudiate President Clinton for having an affair with an intern? That performance, widely hailed by Clinton's critics, offered a hint of the holier-than-thou Lieberman, a man so morally smug and convinced of his own righteousness that he would eventually alienate many of his former supporters on the Democratic side. His behavior this week has compounded the negative feelings about good ol' Joe.

Even those who gave him the benefit of the doubt when he campaigned for John McCain in last year's presidential election are confounded by his apparent flip-flop on the so-called Medicare buy-in, a compromise designed to win passage of health-care reform in the Senate. "Why would he threaten to bring down the bill on something that three months ago he supported?" fumes a Democratic strategist working for reform who declined to be named because of the perilous nature of the negotiations. "It's intellectually dishonest."

Watching Lieberman evolve since he shared the presidential ticket with Al Gore is to wonder if this is all one big grudge match. After that heartbreaking loss, Lieberman stood aside to see what Gore would do in 2004, and when Gore didn't get in, Lieberman kind of assumed he would be his party's frontrunner. When Gore endorsed Howard Dean (without giving Lieberman the courtesy of a heads-up), Lieberman felt betrayed. He didn't get the backing or the respect he thought he deserved, and by 2006 his support for the war in Iraq earned him a primary challenge. After losing the primary, he ran as an independent. Senate Democrats endorsed the Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, ensuring them a special place on Lieberman's payback list. "He's batting them around like a cat with a ball of yarn," says the strategist.

At the same time, Lieberman's director of communications, Marshall Wittmann, tells NEWSWEEK that his boss "wants to vote for this bill. He's likely to be one of the 60." But it will be on his terms. Progressives are rightfully castigating Lieberman, but in truth, the collapse of the public option and the Medicare buy-in are not all his fault. He's the frontman at the moment, but other self-described moderates with ties to the insurance industry were also ready to bolt. Lieberman just gave them cover. Wittmann shrugs off the criticism from the Democratic left. "If they'd step back and cool their jets and listen, they should be exceedingly pleased," he says, as he lists the core bill's virtues.

Lost in the controversy over the public option is the fact that the bill would cover some 31 million uninsured people and eliminate such insidious insurance-company practices as shutting out people with preexisting conditions. Maybe the price for Lieberman's support is worth it if it can bring Republican votes. But no one seems to put any stock in that scenario. Republicans are too dug in. They'll just find something else in the bill they don't like. "It's too big" is the likely objection.

Yes, it is big, and Democrats should celebrate its bigness. Granted, it is dramatically scaled down compared with earlier expectations, but what's likely to pass is still a massive expansion in coverage for Americans and a sea change in the way insurance companies can do business. "Liberals have to pivot away from all of the rancor and focus on the upside of the bill," says Matt Bennett, a cofounder of Third Way, a centrist policy shop in Washington. "By the time we get to a Rose Garden signing, the public option will be a distant memory and the legislation will be hailed as a monumental accomplishment."

If that's the scenario that develops, Lieberman won't look as bad to Democrats as he does today. And you can bet that he'll be in camera range to celebrate and take credit for a bill that will fundamentally alter how Americans interact with insurance companies, and how illness itself is regarded. If you can't be discriminated against for getting sick, or having a child with diabetes, or marrying someone with multiple sclerosis, that's a huge change that will ripple through the economy and liberate millions, and that's the message that Democrats—and Lieberman—will soon start delivering.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of  Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and  Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.