The Lieberman-Dean Imbroglio

As the Obama administration’s dream of a health care reform bill  faces zero hour, two new obstacles stand in its way. Let us call it the Lieberman-Dean imbroglio.  Lieberman vowed to vote against the Senate bill, unless it abandoned both the public option and the Medicare buy-in. Sure, he changed his position on the latter over the years, as his detractors have pointed out. But desperate for his support, Harry Reid caved—and Lieberman  is close to publicly announcing that the Democratic caucus now has his vote.

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Yet, the vitriol heaped on Lieberman has been not only excessive, unprecedented and verging on the anti-Semitic, but has exceeded the levels of nastiness we have come to expect in our political culture. The first of the vicious political screeds came from the website of The New Republic, on which Jonathan Chait in effect called Lieberman the equivalent of a mass murderer. Am I exaggerating? Here are Chait’s words: “He seems to view the prospect of sticking it to the liberals who supported his Democratic opponent in 2006 as a goal potentially worth sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of Americans to fulfill.”  If that was not enough, Chait went on to write that “I suspect that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it’s not true.”

Lee Siegel, also a TNR graduate, goes way beyond Chait’s attack. Siegel writes that Lieberman uses his status as an Orthodox Jew to prove that he is a good man. As he puts it, in a bit of vile hyperbole, “And if you get a big fat check from the insurance lobby on the one hand, and the Israel lobby on the other, well, this the tribute that reality pays to virtue.” Lieberman, Siegel says, is the victim of “fundamentalist sickness.” No one, in his eyes, can have a position opposed to the current health care bill for any valid reason. Then, Siegel says Lieberman comes close to being the model of an anti-Semitic caricature. Why? Because  “Lieberman is greedy, arrogant, venal…vindictive” and , if you can believe this, “ritually unclean.”

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Ironically, on “Morning Joe” today, it was left to the old anti-Semite himself  Pat Buchanan to defend  Lieberman, pointing out that if the Obama administration has any chance of gaining back independents, centrists and moderates who have been deserting Obama in droves, it is because Joe Lieberman’s forcing of a compromise against a disastrous bill that is not popular. So Lieberman’s toughness may be the one thing that keeps them in the Democratic column.

The other problem facing the administration is that accepting Lieberman’s demands means that the left-wing of the party is now threatening to pull the plug on their support of their health care bill.  Howard Dean has openly called for defeat of the bill, arguing that it should be sent back to Congress, and that it is worthless without both the public option and the Medicare buy-in. Calling it a “bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG,” Dean went on to say that the current bill is “an insurance company’s dream.” To get what he wants accomplished, Dean favors going back to the House and starting the reconciliation process- a technique that would give them victory with only 51 Senate votes rather than 60, and would force an unpopular bill on the public through an undemocratic and thoroughly partisan course of action.

If other leftist Senators take heed of Dean’s call—Roland Burris of Illinois has already hinted he will not vote for the new compromise measure-that would mean that the bill is likely to not pass, despite the desperate pleas of the President.

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To historians, this is all somewhat similar to the Senate coalition of Progressive isolationists and Republican nationalists that united, for different reasons, to defeat Woodrow Wilson’s plea that the United States join the League of Nations. It’s almost as if columnist Reihan Salam is correct when he argues with tongue in cheek that not only do the liberals have no spine, but that President Barack Obama is a “sleeper agent dedicated to destroying the American left.”  As Salam sees it, Obama is not the Manchurian candidate that people like Glenn Beck think he is, but in fact, is the opposite: someone who can get both liberals and leftists to abandon their core convictions in exchange for symbolic gestures.

So from his perspective, most of them should march with Howard Dean and stand for a single-payer system or a bill that gets to that goal by the stealth plan of a trigger. Instead, they opted to accept a market driven bill that  “emphasized aspects of reform that were most appealing to for-profit insurers” and that “…coalesced around an individual mandate that would provide private insurers with a captive market and billions in federal subsidies that would allow them to charge much more than the market would otherwise bear. Without a strong public option, the mandate-plus-subsidies plan became an almost ludicrously generous giveaway to the insurance industry, sprinkled with cost-control pilot programs that smack of wishful thinking.”

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Meanwhile, some conservatives will condemn Joe Lieberman for getting on board with the compromise bill, while the left will condemn for ruining health care reform. Either way Lieberman can’t win, even though he has played good politics and managed to single-handedly defeat a bill that the public opposes. So if the more expansive bill is now off the table, we have Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean to thank.

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