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On Lieberman and His Critics

Charles Lane was my boss for two years and has been my friend ever since. Ezra Klein is also my friend, not to mention a writer whose work I follow closely. I admire and have learned from both, so it is with some trepidation I weigh into a debate they had in the online pages of the Washington Post over the last few days.

The subject of the debate was Joe Lieberman and his demand that Senate Democrats drop a proposal that would allow some workers over 55 to buy coverage through Medicare. The proposal was the latest attempt to forge a compromise between those senators who wanted to include a public insurance option and those who did not. It was the result of negotiations among ten members, representing both sides of that debate, and by last week the ten seemed to have agreed upon it in principle. But Lieberman refused to go along. If Democrats wanted his vote on health care reform, he said, they’d have to meet his demand that the bill include no public option whatsoever. A compromise good enough for at least five like-minded colleagues was, it seems, not good enough for him.

Ezra wrote a post, explaining to readers the consequences of Lieberman’s actions. By refusing to budge even a little on the public option, Lieberman was effectively holding health care reform hostage. The only alternatives to meeting his demands were to let reform die, to attempt a risky parliamentary maneuver, or to reach an accommodation with other, even more skeptical senators.

The likely result, in all three cases, would have been to leave millions of additional people without adequate insurance--and that, Ezra pointed out, could have severe consequences. Although it's become strangely unfashionable in elite political circles to frame health care reform as an effort to curb human misery, health care reform is, in fact, an effort to curb human misery. Numerous studies have suggested that thousands of people die every year because they cannot pay for the medical care they need. And that's to say nothing of the many more who endure severe financial hardship.

Ezra also argued that Lieberman’s motives were suspect. Lieberman’s arguments about the public option changed conspicuously over time, as if he were grasping for reasons to oppose it. (Frequently, those arguments were nonsensical or simply wrong.) Majority Leader Harry Reid had invited Lieberman to participate in the ten-member negotiations over a compromise, but Lieberman declined. After telling Reid privately and signaling publicly that he had an open mind about the Medicare buy-in, Lieberman on Sunday told Reid  he would vote against health reform--and go so far as to support a filibuster of it--if the bill included such a provision. He wasn’t even willing to wait until the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) delivered its official cost estimate.

All of this led Ezra to speculate that Lieberman, still angry at the liberals who tried to unseat him in 2006, was acting not out of principle but out of sheer spite--and in a way that would lead to significant suffering. Ezra wrote:

At this point, Lieberman seems primarily motivated by torturing liberals. That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.

It was this line that caught Chuck’s attention. Describing Ezra’s post as an “outrageous smear,” Chuck wrote:

Klein essentially accuses Lieberman of mass murder because he disagrees with him on a policy issue about which there is considerable debate among people of good will across the political spectrum.

To prove his point, Chuck said that Lieberman actually supports extending insurance coverage to everybody--that his opposition was simply over the means by which to do it. Chuck also noted that liberals have frequently protested elements of the present health reform bill, threatening at times to withhold their support if changes weren’t forthcoming. If it’s ok for them to apply political pressure with such threats, Chuck implied, why isn’t it OK for Lieberman?

It may surprise you to hear that I think Chuck has a point here, at least on the broad principle. There’s a natural tendency in politics to assume the very best about our allies and the very worst about our adversaries. And that natural tendency finds frequent expression in the world of online journalism. When a politician stands up for a cause we think is righteous, we tend to assume that politician is righteous. When a politician stands up against a cause we think is righteous, we tend to assume that politician is venal, craven, or callous. Sometimes that is true, to be sure. But sometimes it is not.

Health care is a perfect example. It is certainly possible to oppose health care reform on principled, moral grounds. If you sincerely believe that even modest, incremental reforms will destroy innovation, crush the economy, create nightmarish bureaucracies, and spark harsh rationing for the sick and elderly, then opposing health care reform isn’t putting lives at risk--it’s saving lives, not to mention a way of living. And if you don’t believe any of those things but do believe that, overall, health care reform will be a net negative to society, then opposing health care reform is less a matter of high principle but very much a matter of sound judgment.

As readers of this space know, I don’t agree with any of those positions. I have argued against them, passionately, with every empirical fact at my disposal. And I have no problem invoking morality as part of my case. But absent evidence to the contrary, I shouldn’t accuse adversaries, in writing, of venal, self-centered thinking. And I shouldn't assume they are indifferent to the suffering that motivates me.

The trouble with Chuck’s argument is that there’s no evidence Lieberman believes any of these arguments against reform, and a great deal of evidence that he does not. Lieberman, by all appearances, seems to share the belief of essentially all Democrats and many non-Democrats that health care reform is a moral imperative. And his discomfort with a modest Medicare buy-in seems altogether contrived, given that he endorsed the idea of a Medicare buy-in during the 2000 presidential campaign and defended it as recently as three months ago.

To put it bluntly, the idea that Lieberman now finds the very same proposal a grave threat to the public good is simply not credible. And while I understand the rules of strategic gamesmanship, somebody who took health care reform seriously--somebody who genuinely cared about ending the misfortune that visits people without affordable medical care--simply would not have made such a strong stand, over such a tiny issue, at such a pivotal time.

The proof, I think, is in the actions of Lieberman’s adversaries. Sherrod Brown supports the public option just as passionately as Lieberman opposes it. The same goes for Jay Rockefeller. But Brown and Rockefeller have already made a series of huge concessions, because those concessions were necessary to move a bill through Congress. Last night, both men signaled they were prepared to make one last concession--to give up on the idea of a public plan altogether--because that’s what it will take to pass the law.

Brown and Rockefeller, in other words, acted to promote the greater good. I can believe some of their adversaries are doing the same. I find it hard to believe Lieberman is among them.

Note: In a subsequent item about this very controversy, my colleague Marty Peretz also sticks up for Lieberman. And, in criticizing Ezra, he mentions that “I do not recall reading any of his writing.” I accept this as a personal failure, since I obviously have not done enough to promote his excellent work on the blog. In the future, I will not be so remiss.

Follow Jonathan Cohn on Twitter @jcohntnr