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Jousting with Joe

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; 10:02 AM

Joe Lieberman has always had something of a conservative streak -- or, as he might put it, an independent streak.

I can remember, in the mid-1990s, watching him and former Reaganite Bill Bennett hold forums decrying offensive rap music lyrics and other cultural pollution. Lieberman clearly prided himself on breaking the liberal mold and working with the "Book of Virtues" author.

I remember as well when Lieberman expressed his "deep disappointment and personal anger" over Bill Clinton's immoral behavior in a 1998 floor speech. "I do not raise these concerns as self-righteous criticism," Lieberman said, though some saw it that way, even as others viewed the scolding as a tactical maneuver to head off impeachment.

I remember watching Lieberman deliver his VP acceptance speech at the 2000 convention in Los Angeles, when Al Gore's choice of a Jewish moderate seemed bold. And I remember covering Lieberman in New Hampshire in 2004, when he seemed puzzled that his presidential campaign was going nowhere, despite his occasional proclamations of "Joementum."

I remember watching Ned Lamont knock off Lieberman in Connecticut's 2006 Democratic primary, only to see the senator keep his seat as an independent. I was not surprised when Lieberman backed John McCain last year, given their long friendship, but I was stunned to watch him speak at the GOP convention in St. Paul, saying that Barack Obama had accomplished nothing and that "eloquence is no substitute for a record."

In leveraging his position as the Dems' potential 60th vote on health care, Lieberman is doing nothing different than Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe -- the Senate's perpetually gridlocked system gives any member the power to blow up any contested measure. But the anger surrounding the independent iconoclast is truly stunning. Even his religious faith is being questioned.

Lieberman has every right to fight for the kind of legislation he believes in. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that when it comes to health care, he keeps moving the goal posts. If he signs on to some compromise, he loses his influence. As long as he holds out, everyone from POTUS on down has to cater to him.

Bottom line: After his divorce, the Dems are furious with their ex.

The New Republic's Jonathan Chait challenges the man's IQ, saying that "liberals, myself included, might be driving ourselves a little nuts trying to divine Lieberman's motives. He keeps flip-flopping and explaining his shifts by making demonstrably false claims. What's his game? Why does he keep saying these wrong, uninformed things?

"I think one answer here is that Lieberman isn't actually all that smart. He speaks, and seems to think, exclusively in terms of generalities and broad statements of principle. But there's little evidence that he's a sharp or clear thinker, and certainly no evidence that he knows or cares about the details of health care reform. At one point during the 2000 recount, the Gore campaign explained to Lieberman why lowering standards for military ballots would be totally unfair and illegal, and Lieberman proceeded to go on television and subvert the campaign's position. Gore loyalists interpreted this as a sellout, but perhaps the more plausible explanation was that Lieberman -- who, after all, badly wanted to be vice president -- just didn't understand the details of the Gore position well enough to defend it. The guy was taken apart by Dick Cheney in the 2000 veep debate."

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder says Lieberman likes to torment his old party:

"For progressives, with his latest Hamleting on health care reform, Sen. Joe Lieberman has officially transitioned from his status as the Senate's Lucy-Pulling-The-Ball-Away to a guy who, in the words of Center for American Progress' Matthew Yglesias, demonstrates 'sociopathic indifference to the human cost' of his actions. That's one way of putting it.


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