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Democrats take on the Liebermonster

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The reviews of Sen. Joe Lieberman's handling of the health-care bill were savage.

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The Connecticut Democrat "snubbed" the president's health-care entreaties and gave "aid and comfort" to the Republicans. Liberal activists arrested in a protest outside his office said "we blame Lieberman" for weakening the Senate majority leader's bill. Liberals said he made a "political decision early on to pander to the insurance industry." He shifted positions so much it was "like trying to hold quicksilver in your hands."

Sound familiar? Those quotations are all from the summer of 1994. The president he snubbed was Bill Clinton, the Republican he aided was Bob Dole, and the majority leader he weakened was George Mitchell.

The iconoclastic senator is again infuriating liberals. To them he has become a Liebermonster, loathed as if he were Dick Cheney -- maybe more, because liberals feel betrayed by Lieberman.

The story now is that Lieberman, bitter about losing his Democratic primary in 2006, has shifted to the right with the goal of "torturing" liberals on health care and other issues. The narrative is as satisfying as it is pervasive. It's also wrong.

Lieberman probably is still angry about being beaten by Connecticut businessman Ned Lamont and forced to run as an independent while his Democratic colleagues -- including Barack Obama -- campaigned for his opponent. And his explanations of why he is undermining the Democrats' health-care legislation aren't exactly cogent.

But Lieberman has not turned into a "standard-issue conservative" (the Daily Beast) or even become "increasingly conservative" (Mother Jones). Neither is his position on health care particularly "startling" (The Post), evidence that his "heart is with the right" (Newsweek), nor a sign of "new depths of betrayal" (the Guardian).

He's the same old Joe who has been sticking it to Democrats on high-profile issues for two decades. What's changed is everybody else. In our increasingly tribal politics, both sides are more demanding of ideological purity than they were when Lieberman came to the Senate in 1988. The constant purging of heretics has left Congress ever more polarized. This, more than anything done by Lieberman or Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe, is why the government can't get anything done.

Those who accuse Lieberman of a recent right turn have probably forgotten that in his first campaign for Senate he secured the endorsement of William F. Buckley in defeating a liberal Republican, Lowell Weicker. Lieberman criticized Weicker for opposing U.S. military actions and accused him of trying to raise taxes.

His ideology has not changed one bit, as measured by vote ratings. The American Conservative Union scored his conservatism an eight out of 100 in 2008, the same as Maryland's Ben Cardin (Obama scored a more conservative 17). His lifetime conservative rating is 16, and over the past five years he's actually been a slightly more liberal 8.2. Ratings by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action tell a similar tale, and a University of California at San Diego ranking through the end of July found him to be the 28th most liberal member of the Senate this year, tied with that conservative icon, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii.

Lieberman has always defied party orthodoxy on highly visible issues: cuts in the capital gains tax, vouchers for private schools, partial privatization of Social Security, limits on jury awards and George H.W. Bush's military actions. He worked closely with Bill Bennett and threatened Hollywood with "legal restrictions on their freedom." In 1998, he supported California's Proposition 209, restricting affirmative action. His heresies have continued in recent years, including his kisses for George W. Bush and the Iraq war -- and, after Democrats drummed him out of the party, his support for John McCain.

The difference now is how his actions have been received. A decade ago, after he harshly criticized Clinton's morality, Al Gore chose Lieberman as his running mate -- in large part because of that stance. Liberals balked but ultimately agreed to accept Gore's choice.

This time, however, there is no forgiveness. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Lieberman's home town, told Politico she wants him "recalled" from office (it's impossible). Liberal bloggers are going after his wife. Others are renewing demands that Lieberman lose his committee chairmanship. The Crooks and Liars Web site proposed that Lieberman be labeled "a sleazebag," "a sanctimonious backstabber" and "a serial betrayer."

Republicans, who recently floated a purity test for GOP candidates, know where this road leads: to a 40-member minority in the Senate. If Democrats wish to remain the majority party, they should avoid the loyalty trap. Lieberman may be a monster, but he's their monster.

danamilbank@washpost.com



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