Opportunism and Power

Last Thursday, I posted some thoughts about independent Senator Joseph Lieberman's unique and temporary position in the current Congress as the Senator who could most plausibly switch from caucusing with the Democrats to the Republicans, thereby putting the Democrats out of power in the upper house. I offered two observations: (1) Lieberman has done nothing on matters of policy to advance anything that might be called a "Lieberman agenda," which I would have thought a public-spirited career public servant (and former presidential aspirant) would want to do if freed from the purgatory of being "just one vote out of 100" in the Senate; and (2) Since Lieberman seems not to have a unique policy agenda, his decision to run as an independent in 2006 against the Democrat who defeated him in his party's primary was evidence of personal opportunism, a choice to keep his Senate seat simply because he likes to be a Senator and not to advance any version of the public good.

These arguments generated some discussion among various readers on the Comments board, a discussion in which I took part. Two further issues arose in that conversation that I wanted to explore a bit further here. First, is it possible that Lieberman simply does not differ from his former fellow Democrats on anything other than Iraq, so that there is nothing for him to do with his temporary power? Second, if that is an accurate description of Lieberman's position, should it save him from being labeled an opportunist? My answer to the first question is ultimately no, although there is reason why one might think the answer is yes. To the second question, though, the answer is still no.

It is almost certainly true that my palpable disdain for Lieberman is currently rooted in my rejection of his views on Iraq and his support for Bush's policies on war and terrorism. While my observations on Thursday could be viewed as non-ideological, in the sense that a conservative could be just as surprised (and disappointed) as a I am surprised (and relieved) that Lieberman has not pushed the Democrats to do things that they would not otherwise want to do, I would not have chosen to use this space to condemn him as an opportunist if I did not view Lieberman's substantive policy views with alarm. While my choice of words is undeniably driven by policy differences, however, the question is whether the substance of my critique is defensible. Which leads to the first issue: Is Lieberman just another Democrat on policy issues other than Iraq and national security?

It can be argued with some plausibility that Lieberman is not really the apostate that liberals think he is on non-security issues. See here for an example of a liberal's concession that Lieberman's voting record is pretty much what someone like me would want. On the other hand, "Lieberman's voting record in 2005 was more conservative than that of any other senator from a blue state, according to National Journal's annual analysis of liberal and conservative votes." (cite here). He has been on the corporate side of the debate over limiting damages in civil suits. He has been a loud voice injecting religion into public policy discussions, even suggesting that one must be religious in order to be moral. More to the point, however, Lieberman has always seemed to pursue a strategy in which his conservatism does not show up fully in his voting record, because he tends to work in advance of votes to move the result to the right and then votes with the party when the vote comes along (when the outcome either way is no longer in doubt).

In my view, Lieberman thus seems to have at least some issues on which he differs from the Democratic leadership. If he is not using his current position to pursue public policies that he genuinely believes would make the world a better place, why is he in the Senate? It is simply not the case that there is nothing for him to do.

For the sake of argument, though, let's imagine that Lieberman really is an absolutely down-the-line Democrat (as if the rest of the party agrees on everything!) on all issues except national security. In the summer of 2006, he lost his party's nomination to an anti-war candidate whose views on other issues were not in play during the primary campaign (and which were also reasonably characterized as standard-issue Democratic positions). Even if Lieberman genuinely believed that he was right and his opponent was wrong, was his decision to take a second bite at the apple as an independent required by his principles and not his personal ambition?

At the time, virtually no one thought it likely that the Democrats could retake the Senate in 2006; but let's give Lieberman credit for impressive foresight in imagining that they might. To justify running as an independent, he needed to believe that his vote would matter on security issues. Lieberman instead of Lamont would have to make us safer. How would this work? He knew that Bush would be president in the two years during which he would hold the key to the Senate. He would also have to know that the Democrats could not break a Republican filibuster or override a presidential veto on any war-related measures. In short, he would not be needed to make the difference on national security issues. The Lieberman vote would not be the key to keeping us safe.

In other words, Bush and 49 Republican senators could stop the Democrats on everything else that Lieberman might care about, and Lieberman's 50 caucus-mates could do nothing to stop the Bush war policies. If we believe that Lieberman really viewed himself as a Democrat on everything except national security matters, he could not make a difference on any issue at all, and his choice to run as an independent is even more obviously simple opportunism. His only reason to be in the Senate, it seems, is because he likes it there.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan