Campaigns/Elections

In Search of Joe Lieberman's Conscience

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This morning my celebratory San Francisco Values breakfast of discounted Rice-a-Roni and broken Ghiardelli chocolate bars was almost ruined by the news of that Joe Lieberman had retained his Senate seat. Lieberman would be annoying enough if all he did was hook arms with Bill Bennett to wag his finger at the American public over their appalling taste in movies, music, and video games. But for someone who is supposedly a stand-up guy of high moral character, he has been awfully quick to betray his president, his principles, and his party for his own self-aggrandizement.

Lieberman's rebuke to Bill Clinton in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal was true to form in its sanctimony but understandably earned him the enmity of Democrats who were just as dismayed at Clinton's recklessness but thought Lieberman's grandstanding only helped the Republicans and the senator's own political aspirations. As I noted back in 2000, Lieberman quickly moved left when Al Gore picked him as his running mate, dropping all the inconvenient positions that had made him stand out in a party dominated by identity politics and public employee labor unions. And when he lost the Democratic primary last summer, instead of accepting his defeat with good grace, he started a Connecticut for Lieberman party because he knew the state could not afford to lose him. Now he may hold the balance of power in the Senate, an ideal position for a self-described "very independent Democrat" who mistakes ambition for rectitude.

"I will go to Washington beholden to no political group, but only to the people of Connecticut and my conscience," Lieberman told his supporters last night. There is something to be said for putting principles above party loyalty, and for smoothing over differences to help your team win if you honestly believe the other side is worse. But Lieberman's shows of independence and  his compromises always seem timed to advance nothing but his career. There is a difference between courage and chutzpah.