Thursday, July 17, 2008

What Does Lieberman Want?

Senator Joseph Lieberman's defeat in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary and subsequent general election victory as an "Independent Democrat" created one of the more delicate political balances in U.S. history. With Lieberman (and the socialist Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont) in their caucus, Senate Democrats hold a 51-49 margin in the Senate, giving them all the power (agenda setting, committee majorities, subpoena power, etc.) that goes with majority status. Keeping Lieberman in the caucus has thus been essential to his Democratic colleagues, putting Lieberman in a position with potentially enormous power. One could imagine a cartoonish situation where Lieberman snaps his fingers and announces that he is bored, leading to frantic efforts by the party leadership to find ways to please his fickle tastes.

Surprisingly, nothing even mildly in that direction has happened. Lieberman requested and received the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is hardly a plum position in terms of profile or portfolio. His most public efforts, of course, have been in aggressively supporting the Bush administration's Iraq policy and the candidacy of Republican Senator John McCain, earning him the enmity of many Democrats both inside and outside the Senate. Even so, this is hardly out of character for Lieberman, who won his first term in the Senate by running a hard right campaign against liberal Republican Lowell Weicker and whose selection as Al Gore's running mate in 2000 was largely driven by Lieberman's highly public criticism of Bill Clinton as well as his more general reputation as a public moralist (read: scold).

In other words, Lieberman's new status has led him a bit further afield, but not anywhere near the extremes toward which his unique position might have allowed him to push. This is even more surprising when one considers that Lieberman will almost certainly be exiled come January 2009. Unless the Democrats do much worse than expected, leaving them near the current 50/50 split, or much better, putting them near a 60/40 veto-proof majority, Lieberman will almost certainly be punished for his transgressions to date. While every seat is important, it is easy to imagine the Democrats with, say, a 54-44-2 split after the election. A caucus with 55 members -- most of whom are pretty angry about Lieberman's support for McCain -- could be expected to decide that they do not really need a 56th member. They might even be expected to make an ugly public example of Lieberman as he is ousted.

It was thus interesting to see an article in Monday's NYT that offered extensive quotations and analysis of a recent interview with Lieberman. The genuine surprise coming out the article, for me, is that Lieberman just doesn't seem to have an agenda. (He is, however, willing to be utterly disingenuous. "When asked if he received 'talking points' from the McCain campaign or the Republican National Committee, Mr. Lieberman replied, 'I usually don’t.'") He simply seems to be a stubborn guy who may or may not be settling a few small scores but who gives no hint that he is taking advantage of his position -- nor does he show any awareness that his position is so very temporary. In short, he offers no vision and no indication of even having a purpose, large or small, in his career.

During the 2006 mid-term election campaign, Michael Dorf wrote a column on FindLaw about Lieberman, noting that "[a]t each crucial moment in his Senate career, Lieberman has made plain that the cause about which he cares most deeply is Joe Lieberman." Mike concluded by noting that "I can't shake the suspicion that behind Lieberman's disarming wit lies the soul of an opportunist." It is interesting that, in the two year's following Mike's comments, Lieberman has shown himself to be such a small-time opportunist. While the Senator should be condemned for his transgressions, we might count our blessings that he is willing to settle for what amounts to little more than self-indulgence.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

19 comments:

retlwyer said...

Trashing Joe Lieberman is not unusual, but Professor Buchanan's piece adds little to the conversation. The essence of his "analysis" is to admit confusion: Since Joe Lieberman is an opportunist, why isn't he working harder at it? I suggest that the Professor consider a fairly obvious explanation: Lieberman is in fact that rare politician whocares more about policy than position and is willing to stick by his convictions even at some cost.

If the Democrats should be foolish enough to eject Joe Lieberman from their Caucus, it is my hope (as a moderate Repupublican, remember them?) that the Republican leadership in the Senate would welcome him, liberal views and all, with open arms. But I am not confident that they would do anything that sensible.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

If Lieberman cared more about policy than position, he would be pursuing a policy agenda. But he is not. That is the essence of my "analysis," which would be very different if Lieberman were acting like a moderate Republican, or for that matter a Whig or a Know-Nothing or a Maoist. He is, instead, simply being personally opportunistic.

Carl said...

One could imagine a cartoonish situation where Lieberman snaps his fingers and announces that he is bored, leading to frantic efforts by the party leadership to find ways to please his fickle tastes. Surprisingly, nothing even mildly in that direction has happened.

So, your strongest evidence that Lieberman is acting like a personal opportunist is that he's not acting like a personal opportunist would act?

"Lieberman will almost certainly be punished for his transgressions to date."

What sins are those, exactly? If your diatribe is right, he was merely acting as a personal opportunist who has in no way using his unique position to harm Democratic policy objectives and is merely interested in keeping himself in power, hardly something the Democratic leadership would begrudge.

So which is it? Is Lieberman just trying to keep himself in power or is he pushing an agenda at odds with that of the Democratic leadership that will almost certainly lead to his defeat in 2009?

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hamilton said...

I believe the point is that Lieberman has transgressed against the Democrats by breaking from the party, but his reasons for doing so are not the usual ones. I believe most rebels from the two-party system tend to have their own strong policies they want to pursue. Lieberman on the other hand seems to have broken from the system only because otherwise he would not have continued to be a Senator.

If Lieberman prefers the policies of the Democrats, surely he shouldn't have defected, since a stronger majority (even if it didn't include his Joe-mentum) would better progress those policies. If he prefers policies distinct from those of the Democrats, he should be doing something about them, considering his uniquely powerful position. Since he isn't doing either of those things, it is logical to assume that either he has no policy preference or he approves of the Democratic preference but really likes being a Senator.

retlwyer said...

Neil H. Buchanan said...
If Lieberman cared more about policy than position, he would be pursuing a policy agenda. But he is not. That is the essence of my "analysis," which would be very different if Lieberman were acting like a moderate Republican, or for that matter a Whig or a Know-Nothing or a Maoist. He is, instead, simply being personally opportunistic.
* * * *

Senator Lieberman's "policy agenda" is primarily to continue to support what he believes to be a responsible foreign policy in Iraq and elswhere. He has gained nothing of personal benefit from this and to describe it as "personally opportunistic" is simply detached from reality.

Jamison Colburn said...

If Professor Buchanan got anything wrong about the junior Senator from the Constitution State, it is that he isn't necessarily a Maoist. Time will tell, but his carney, road-show version of a Presidential campaign--with winners like "Joe-mentum"--suggests only one thing: an ego like Mao's. ;)

Neil H. Buchanan said...

There is an important distinction between personal opportunism and an aggressive advancement of a policy agenda. No matter how one might feel about Lieberman's policy views or his position on the political spectrum, the point of my post was that he is not doing anything with his unique position to advance a policy agenda that is in any way identifiable.

Being another vote in favor of Bush's Iraq policies does nothing to leverage his temporary position of power vis-a-vis the Democrats. He is thus evidently content to hold a seat in the Senate, which obviously gives him great personal satisfaction, yet do nothing with his unique position beyond voting with Bush. He is thus both a personal opportunist (because he abandoned his party to run for the Senate against the duly nominated candidate for that seat) and a person with no policy agenda beyond saying "me too" about Iraq.

Of course, one could trivialize the notion of a policy agenda by saying that voting with Bush IS Lieberman's policy agenda. If so, that's a pretty sad statement about any Senator, if he cannot even come up with something to make the world a better place (however he defines that concept) beyond adding one more vote on a few bills that would pass anyway. Yes, that is an agenda, but it's a pretty thin one. Part of the surprise that I was expressing in this post was that Lieberman might actually possess such a minimal vision, if it can even be called a vision.

Saying "me too" on Iraq, though, is clearly at odds with his caucus, which is why they will be glad to kick him out.

retlwyer said...

Professor Buchanan's latest post stretches the term "opportunist" beyond recognition. His sole basis for applying that term to Senator Lieberman is to fault the Senator for not having meekly yielded his Senate seat to the the winner of the Democratic primary. Any partisan Democrat might resent, Lieberman's decision, on the grounds of Party Loyalty Uber Alles, but it simply does not fit any accepted definition of "oportunism." (There was, of course, a true opportunist in the race for Lieberman's Senate seat: his Democratic opponent, Ned What's-his-name, who saw a chance to escape from a well-earned obscurity and took it.)

Professor Buchanan also seeks to trivialize Senator Lieberman's position on Iraq as not amounting to a "policy agenda." It is not clear just what sort of "policy agenda" he has in mind, but surely there are few more important policy issues before the country. Is Senator Lieberman's postion simply a matter of saying "me too"? Hardly. On the contrary, he has been an articulate and effective leader--which is precisely what his Democratic colleagues find so irritating. (And as Professor Buchanan's initial post made quite clear, he has done so without seeking personal benefit. If someone ever writes a successor to JFK's "Profiles in Courage," Joe Lieberman will deserve a chapter.)

Tam Ho said...

opportunism: n. the art, policy, or practice of taking advantage of opportunities or circumstances often with little regard for principles or consequences.

Lieberman took advantage of the opportunity to run as an independent - to retain his Senate seat - with no good policy reason for doing so, as the post explained. His defection (the taking advantage part) combined with his lack of a policy agenda (the "little regard for principle" part) and apathy for the pragmatic ramifications for his party (the "little regard for consequences" part) demonstrate his opportunism.

But luckily, his opportunism is somewhat tamed by his relative lack of ambition and lack of policy agenda, as he has not exploited his position to the extent that one could imagine. The latter part of this proposition is not inconsistent with characterizing Lieberman as an opportunist. Some opportunists are more ambitious than others.

This is a pretty straightforward use of the word. Hope this helps.

retlwyer said...

Tam Ho provides a dictionary definition of opportunism, and that is indeed helpful because the balance of his comment illustrates how little application it has to Joe Lieberman.

To say that Lieberman "took advantage of the opportunity to run as an independent" stands reality on its head. Lieberman had that the "opportunity to run as a Democrat" only when the primary voters in Connecticut chose to ignore his years of dedicated service to his party and his country because of their disagreement on a single issue. It is an "opportunity" that Lieberman would have preferred not to have had.

As for "principle" and "policy agrenda," Tam Ho, like Professor Buchanan, ignores Lieberman's principled position on Iraq. It is that position which caused him to have a primary opponent to begin with and which his reelction permitted him to continue to maintains. It is also that position, I pointed out, that is so irritating to Lieberman's Democratic colleagues (and, one suspects,Tam Ho and Buchanan). But a principle is no less a principle (or "policy agenda" because they disagree with it.

Finally, Tam Ho is just as mysterious as Professor Buchanan in failing to explain how Lieberman should have "exploited his position" to advance some unspecified agenda. Apart from Iraq, Lieberman's "policy agenda" is little different from that of the other members of the Democratic Caucus. Having joined that Caucus, the notion that he could somehow leverage his position as an Independent to advance his and its common agenda. is curious at best.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

"Professor Buchanan's latest post stretches the term 'opportunist' beyond recognition." In response to this comment by retlwyer, Tam Ho provides a dictionary definition of opportunist and applies it directly to Lieberman. In rebuttal, retlwyer says that Lieberman doesn't fit that definition because he only did what he did after the voters in Connecticut rejected him, leaving him with the unfortunate and unsought alternative of non-opportunistically running as an independent. Apparently, therefore, it is not possible for Lieberman to be an opportunist, because: (1) if he had won the primary, he would be a legitimate contender for the seat, and (2) when he lost the primary, it was the voters who were wrong, making him a legitimate contender for the seat.

The bottom line for retlwyer is apparently that he strongly agrees with Lieberman about Iraq (a "profile in courage"). Great. I obviously do not. That is simply not relevant to the point of the original post. If I agreed with Lieberman and retlwyer, I'd still be shocked (and, in that case, quite disappointed) that Lieberman is not pressing his very temporary advantage more aggressively. Rather than focusing on his opportunism, I suppose in that case one would call him "excessively cautious," "timid," or whatever. As the original post (and hamilton's comment) said, this is a rather surprising case of someone being dealt a very good hand and doing very little with it.

retlwyer said...

I agree with Professor Buchanan that the merits of Lieberman's position are irrelevant. Similarly not all the sujects of "Profiles in Courage" took positions that Kennedy agreed with (or that Buchanan or I would agree with.)

But the real points are two. First, it is just not credible to describe someone as an "opportunist" simply for defending the seat that he has filled with distinction for many years. Still less is it opportunistic to do do in order to advocate a position that(rightly or wrongly) one believes in strongly. (And that is true whether the primary voters were right or wrong.)

Second, Professor Buchanan latest post sheds no light on just how Lieberman should have "press[ed] his very temporary advantage more aggressively." As I observed to Tam Ho:
"Apart from Iraq, Lieberman's "policy agenda" is little different from that of the other members of the Democratic Caucus. Having joined that Caucus, the notion that he could somehow leverage his position as an Independent to advance his and its common agenda. is curious at best."

Perhaps, Professor Buchanan will elucidate further on that point.

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