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Jousting with Joe

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.

"What Lieberman is actually trying to do -- and surely, the Democratic leadership has discovered this by now -- is to kill or weaken the bill.

"Since, really, 2006, Lieberman has felt alienated from his caucus, and he's grown more conservative. He does not care about liberals, who tried to drum him out of office in 2006; he seems to enjoy poking them in the eye. He's not likely to run for office again, so he's not terribly worried about loud protests. His contempt for liberals coincides with his new conservative friends, aides, colleagues, donors."

Harry Reid & Co. should just look elsewhere, Slate's Tim Noah says:

"I don't believe that 60th vote will ever be Lieberman. His actions increasingly demonstrate that he is grasping for a reason, any reason, to oppose the bill, probably to appease the insurance industry, which is headquartered in his home state of Connecticut. . . .

"Lieberman may be unreachable, but Snowe is not, and neither is her fellow Maine Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (who may prove helpful should a faint breeze knock over 93-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, D.-W.Va.). Further compromises would probably have to be made, many of them unappetizing. But no matter how much Moveon.org fulminates and no matter how many meetings the Congressional Progressive Caucus demands, it just isn't plausible that liberals would walk away from a bill that extends health insurance to 31 million of the 45 million people who are currently uninsured."

So where do things stand? "As the battle over health care lurches toward a conclusion," the NYT says, "President Obama is confronting an increasingly sharp divide on the Democratic left, with liberals in the Senate and the House split on a critical question: How much of what they want is enough?"

Some left-wingers, led by Howard Dean, are bailing.

Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher: "From what we know about the bill, it is worse than passing nothing. . . .

"If I wanted Joe Lieberman writing a health care bill, I would've voted for John McCain. Howard Dean is right. Kill the Senate bill."

Kos also is opposed: "My take is that it's unconscionable to force people to buy a product from a private insurer that enjoys sanctioned monopoly status. . . .

"Without any mechanisms to control costs, this is yet another bailout for yet another reviled industry."

The cost control does seem really weak. But if you abolish the unconscionable rule against preexisting conditions without a mandate, you let people skate with no coverage until they get sick, at which point they buy a policy.

At the Daily Beast, Lee Siegel questions whether Joe is good for the Jews:

"The strongest force driving Lieberman's destructive contrariness is a religious fundamentalism that is fatally removed from moral sentiment. His absolute certainty that he is right makes him absolutely blind to what's wrong. . . .

"You don't doubt the morality of your feeling, because you have used your strict, self-sacrificing observance of Jewish law to prove to yourself that you are a good man. And you are not a hypocrite, because your observance proves that not only do you profess a belief in God, but you act on your belief. God on one side, your obedience to God on the other -- the result is an ironclad conviction that what you do is absolutely right. . . .

"The professional Jews will whine that I am being vulgar when I judge the Jewish Lieberman's politics against his faith. But Lieberman is the one who professes his faith to be fundamental to his morality. I am just examining the effects of his faith on his psychology.

"Let me be appear to be even more vulgar. What makes Jews cringe about Lieberman's sanctimonious opposition to the only clause in the health-care bill that actually is worth the name 'reform' is that, to be blunt, it is so close to an anti-Semitic caricature. Lieberman is greedy, arrogant, venal, and vindictive."

Oy. Being Jewish is part of who Lieberman is, but I don't think we need to drag it into the health debate.

On the right, meanwhile, Lieberman is winning applause. This David Frum post is headlined "Joe Lieberman Saves the Country":

The bill that remains is "not good, but it's not what we were threatened with two days ago. Thank you Joe Lieberman."

Other conservatives are feasting on the left's pillorying of Lieberman, as National Review's Tevi Troy observes:

"Boot him out of office. Strip his chairmanship. Fire his wife. Accuse him of murder. What will liberals suggest next in their campaign against Senator Joe Lieberman? Lieberman's latest sin is opposing the inclusion of both the public option and the Medicare buy in for those aged 55-64 in the health care bill. This has led to the current anti-Joe frenzy, which included the murderer comparison, courtesy of Ezra Klein, and the wife-firing campaign, courtesy of Firedoglake.

"I'm not sure why Lieberman in particular inspires such hatred on the left. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson is at least at obstructionist to the Democrats, and not just on the abortion issue. . . .

"And lest you think that Lieberman has become more conservative since he has turned independent, his ACU score in 2008, the last full year recorded, was only 8%, while Nelson was twice as conservative at 16%."

The aforementioned Ezra Klein wrote on his WP blog:

"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."

Blogger and cancer survivor Jane Hamsher, mentioned earlier, has been taking aim at Joe's wife:

"I wrote a letter to the Susan G. Komen Foundation asking that they stop using money that was raised for cancer research to pay Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Senator Joe Lieberman, as a spokesperson for the organization. . . . For decades, Hadassah Lieberman has worked for the insurance-pharmaceutical-lobbying complex."

Allahpundit (and lots of liberal blogs) have video of Lieberman saying -- just this past September -- "My proposals were basically to expand the existing successful public health-insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid." Ah. You mean the Medicare buy-in you just torpedoed?

"His spokesman tried to explain the apparent flip-flop, but I prefer the 'he screwed the Democrats just to screw them' theory. Makes me smile."

But it's not so easy for the party to jettison Joe, as TPM's Christina Bellantoni explains:

"As Democrats grow increasingly infuriated with Lieberman as he throws a wrench into the health care bill, the White House and Senate leadership can't afford to kick sand in his face. . . .

"White House officials are regularly meeting with him on climate change. . . . Also sizzling on the stove are major pieces of legislation pending in the Homeland Security Committee, which Lieberman chairs. . . . Also of note, Lieberman is about to pass out of his committee a major domestic partners bill extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees."

Where does this leave the health care battle? Powerline's John Hinderaker raises the possibility of collapse:

"For some time now, most observers (including me) have assumed that the Democrats will pass something -- who cares what the bill actually says, as long as it has 'health care reform' inscribed on the front page? But the situation has deteriorated to the point where the Democrats' hysterical need to pass something -- anything! -- has become obvious even to the casual observer. And now, it may finally be the case that, if you're a Democrat, the desire to pass something is weaker than the desire not to look like a desperate fool, or -- more important -- the desire to serve another term."

As for the public, "A bare majority of Americans still believe government action is needed to control runaway health-care costs and expand coverage to the roughly 46 million people without insurance," says a new WashPost/ABC poll. Obama's approval rating: 50 percent.

Blowing hot and cold

As with Lieberman, it can be devastating when your old words come back to haunt you. Gene Robinson reports that Sarah Palin signed a 2007 order in Alaska creating a sub-Cabinet group to tackle the "global challenge" of climate change, including "opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions" and "participate in carbon-trading markets." Then, of course, she was a governor with a state to run. Now she's an author and movement leader with no actual responsibilities.

Today's Tiger

Here's the latest: "Tiger's wife is taking the cubs and moving to a new den," the New York Post reports.

"Moving crews yesterday descended on the family's Florida manse, where Tiger Woods' furious wife, Elin Nordegren, has been living since their infamous battle, and a source close to the golfer's camp told The Post, "She's making plans to move out and take the kids with her.

Read more:

Is Tiger Woods a touchy subject for the media-golfing complex? I love this snippet from the Sydney Morning Herald:

"Former British Open champion and respected CBS golf commentator Ian Baker-Finch has been gagged by the US network from talking about Tiger Woods' dramatic fall from grace. 'Mate, if I say one word about Tiger I will get fired,' Baker-Finch said."

TMZ says Team Tiger has gotten him out of jams before:

"Tiger Woods had crisis managers bail him out of sticky situations with women long before Rachel Uchitel became a household name -- sources tell TMZ.

"Several years before Tiger Woods married Elin Nordegren, his lawyers and PR firm got him out of a messy situation over an Orlando woman who hooked up with the golfer.

"We're told Tiger had met a cocktail waitress at an Orlando bar and the two drove off together. They pulled over and stopped on the side of a remote road. A cop car drove by and the officer became suspicious and approached the vehicle. We're told there was an exchange between the officer and Tiger. It does not appear anyone was arrested or cited.

"One of Tiger's handlers at the time tells TMZ Tiger's PR firm and lawyer were worried the woman might sell her story and they 'negotiated a carefully-crafted settlement' with her -- in the end, she never sold or went public with her story."

Morning George

Stephanopoulos got lukewarm to positive reviews for his "GMA" debut Monday, but no ratings bump. Broadcasting & Cable reports that the program drew 4.6 million viewers, compared with 4.8 million for Diane Sawyer's Friday farewell.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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