• The Logic of Lieberman

    This post is co-authored by Steve Pizer and Austin Frakt.

    Ezra Klein thinks Joe Lieberman put a political vendetta against liberals above the lives of those who would benefit from health reform. In contrast, it is tempting to view the support the bill enjoys from most of the other 59 (or 58) Democratic senators as if it is based on its merits:

    Every other member of the Democratic caucus could have done the same [as Lieberman], but most all have judged the underlying bill more important than their disagreements with it. Lieberman did the opposite, and there’s little evidence that he actually had disagreements with the bill so much as dislike for some of its supporters.

    However, it is also true that the senators are making political calculations. For at least some of them, particularly those who face tight elections, the merits of the bill may not be relevant, or at least not paramount. What matters is getting elected.

    This goes for Lieberman too. He can’t expect to be reelected with strong support from Democrats in Connecticut.  Instead, he will have to rely on a coalition of Republicans, Independents, and some conservative Democrats.  If he’s not careful, he might have a conservative Republican in the race too, making his reelection that much more difficult.

    What’s an endangered incumbent to do?  Reduce the likelihood of competition from the right by visibly antagonizing liberal Democrats, of course.  The details of policy matter much less than the reaction from liberals.  The more extreme and visible the better.  If Lieberman enrages liberals, his right flank in Connecticut is protected.  The same logic applies to Ben Nelson in Nebraska, where Nelson needs support from a large slice of Republican-leaning Independents.

    The vexing difference between Nelson and Lieberman is that Connecticut is a much less conservative state than Nebraska.  Nelson’s maneuvers are widely believed to be necessary for a Democrat from a solidly red state.  Lieberman’s electoral weakness with Democrats in Connecticut is (arguably) self-inflicted, first by his support for the war in Iraq and then by his support for John McCain for President.  Regardless, now that the damage is done there’s no going back and Democrats should expect more infuriating stunts in the future from the Honorable Senator from Connecticut. Therein lies the logic in Lieberman’s otherwise illogical arguments.

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