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Why Lieberman Has Always Grated on Me

As long as we're all psycholanalyzing Joe Lieberman today, I figured I'd chip in my own two cents. What's always bugged me about Lieberman is that he's completely and transparently self-interested (not so different from a lot of politicians in that way), but fanatically committed to the idea that he's motivated entirely by altruism or public-spiritedness. Worse, the lengths to which he goes to insist on the latter when the former is blindingly obvious are downright comical. (Most politicians, by contrast--at least most politicians who claim a vaguely progressive worldview--will at least give you a little wink and a nod when it's obvious they're putting themselves ahead of the public interest.)

Health care fits nicely into this pattern. The self-interested move for Lieberman is to make himself "relevant" to the most important policy debate in the country, not to mention a hero to healthcare opponents, who will shower him with praise and affection (and maybe a cushy think-tank gig and some lucrative board memberships if he retires in 2013). A John Breaux type would implicitly acknowledge he was shilling for opponents of a piece of badly needed social legislation by sparing us the high-minded self-defense. But Lieberman sanctimoniously insists he's trying to save the country from bankruptcy or whatever, even when those arguments are preposterous on the merits and completely contradict views he laid out a few months earlier.

Alas, it's part of a pattern that extends back years. I documented some other instances in this 2003 review of his terrible post-campaign book, An Amazing Adventure. (Warning: I'm now a little embarrassed at how respectful I was to Lieberman back then. In my defense, a lot of things have happened in the intervening years.) Among them:

Not surprisingly, Lieberman took great pains to preserve his virtuous image as the campaign progressed--even when it conflicted with Democratic strategy. Yet over and over in his own retelling he claims credit for having done right by Gore. Take the vice presidential debate, where Lieberman's milquetoast performance was widely seen as a disappointment in Democratic quarters, saving Cheney the kind of dogfight that would have made him look dour and severe. As a way of rationalizing this, Lieberman confides that he was all set to play attack dog, but "the pollsters and the consultants counseled otherwise. Their surveys and focus group results were clear. The public doesn't want another antagonistic debate." Come again? A vice presidential nominee's role in the debate has always been to attack the other party's standard-bearer. Not only does Lieberman refuse to accept blame, he denies that Democrats even missed an opportunity, pushing a tired, everybody-was-a-winner line instead: "[Dick Cheney and I] proved that political debates don't have to be all attacks or all sound bites," he enthuses. "We treated voters with respect by respecting the importance of the issues." But this is preposterous. Political campaigns are zero-sum games. If Cheney did well, by definition Lieberman did not.

And this:

Likewise, after the election had dragged on into its recount phase, Lieberman, who had the luxury of returning to that Senate seat he'd kept warm during the campaign, publicly questioned certain tactics that might have tainted his precious moral purity but which would have increased Gore's chances of winning. The most famous concerned a set of military absentee ballots, which many Democratic operatives believed had been mailed out by partisan officials after Election Day and which they wanted to challenge. Yet even as he privately advocated aggressive tactics, Lieberman appeared on "Meet the Press" to publicly distance himself from the effort--and at a time when Republicans like Norman Schwarzkopf were beating up Gore as unpatriotic. "Count every vote," Lieberman told Tim Russert, implicitly endorsing the Republican line of attack. "If I were there, I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel generally."

As Lieberman recalls in the book, "I felt very strongly that I had been on message. I thought I had handled it exactly the way the campaign would have wanted me to handle it." Really? By his own admission, Lieberman had had a conversation with campaign advisors about the issue the previous night. It's hard to believe that their advice to him was "backpedal like a fiend." If nothing else, the fact that so many Democratic insiders felt that Lieberman had sold the campaign out on national television would seem to indicate the opposite.

I'll stop before I blow an artery or something. I guess I'd just say that, unlike Jon, I don't think the problem is that we've been overestimating Lieberman's intelligence. It's that Lieberman chronically and massively underestimates everyone elses.