The Agenda

A Theory of Joe Lieberman

Jonathan Chait offers one reason why Joe Lieberman might be opposing the Democratic health reform effort.

I think one answer here is that Lieberman isn’t actually all that smart. He speaks, and seems to think, exclusively in terms of generalities and broad statements of principle. But there’s little evidence that he’s a sharp or clear thinker, and certainly no evidence that he knows or cares about the details of health care reform. At one point during the 2000 recount, the Gore campaign explained to Lieberman why lowering standards for military ballots would be totally unfair and illegal, and Lieberman proceeded to go on television and subvert the campaign’s position. Gore loyalists interpreted this as a sellout, but perhaps the more plausible explanation was that Lieberman — who, after all, badly wanted to be vice-President — just didn’t understand the details of the Gore position well enough to defend it. The guy was taken apart by Dick Cheney in the 2000 veep debate.

My sense is that Lieberman is not the only prominent elected Democrat with a law degree from an elite institution who has been given tremendous credit for his intellect yet who speaks, and seems to think, exclusively in terms of generalities and broad statements of principle. The Democrat I have in mind has explicitly said that he’d prefer a single-payer model of reform, yet he has dedicated his prestige and political capital to a reform model that, as a number of serious policy thinkers, will prove almost impossible to administer. Like Lieberman, this Democrat has an appealingly cerebral personal style, which involves rejecting false dichotomies and seeking common ground between right and left. His clumsiness in office and frequent political miscalculations have never been treated as signs of a lack of intelligence, however. The parallels go on and on.

Of course, I happen to think that Lieberman is very intelligent. Granted, his opposition to the public option hasn’t been entirely coherent, as the cost and structure of the subsidies and the resulting implicit marginal tax rates are a far bigger problem. I’m pretty sure that the Democrat I have in mind is intelligent too. But I could be wrong. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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