by Meg White
There are a lot of wild theories about what is driving Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to oppose healthcare reform. Why would a man who has recently expressed support for health insurance reform, universal healthcare, expanding Medicare and SCHIP turn around and oppose those things once they had a chance at becoming law?
Many think he's been bought off by Big Pharma and the powerful health insurance companies in his home state. Others point to his bitterness over being abandoned by the Democratic Party in his 2006 bid to keep his Senate seat, or just to his ego. Some of the wilder theories revolve around Israel, blackmail and White House involvement.
Honestly, I don't know what to think. So when I got a chance to talk to Lieberman's former roommate at Yale, writer David Wyles, I had to ask.
"I wish I knew. I think there are aspects of those theories that are true," Wyles told me (though he agreed with me that the Israel motive is far-fetched). "Certainly he holds a grudge against the Democratic Party."
And though the idea of Lieberman taking a job in the insurance or pharmaceutical industries amounts to the type of quid pro quo that would repel most of us, Wyles is pretty certain of that possibility.
"They can offer him a big job as a lobbyist or as an executive," he said. And Lieberman will take it: "He has become shameless."
Wyles remembers Lieberman as a different kind of person. He was always a politician -- Wyles said one of Lieberman's nicknames in college was "Senator" -- but he used to have scruples.
"He was always a Scoop Jackson kind of Democrat," Wyles explained. Still, he's puzzled at how Lieberman could have "gone over to the dark side."
They haven't spoken for years now, and Wyles said he's "sorry to see that Joe has become such a shallow husk of a man."
"I see the same kind of gestures, soft voice and smiles, and that's Joe," he said. "And yet, when I see it now, it infuriates me."
Though Lieberman's current transgressions against healthcare are on the top of most minds contemplating the senator, Wyles has a longer view. He supported Lieberman's political ambitions all the way through his vice presidential run in 2000, but the two finally broke over Lieberman's support for the Iraq war.
"Joe almost reached the number of deferments that 'five-deferment Cheney' did," Wyles said. "He's for wars, but he's not for sending his kids" to fight in the conflicts that "he's so hot to make."
Wyles also pointed out that Lieberman betrayed President Clinton during his impeachment hearings before betraying Obama during the 2008 presidential race. With these multiple betrayals, I wondered aloud how the Democratic leadership could possibly negotiate with this "shameless" politician.
"I don't know," he said. Wyles keeps coming back to the fact that the Democratic Party kept giving Lieberman second chances. "What struck me as being very strange was the Clinton and Obama forgiveness of Joe."
When you think about it rationally, it is a difficult thing to understand. When considering the recent reports of Senate staffers complaining that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel basically ordered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to give Lieberman what he wants, that whole idea of a White House role in Lieberman's resistance to healthcare makes more sense. Could it be that Lieberman is taking direction from the White House?
"The terrible thing is I don't find that hard to believe," Wyles said.
Lieberman's rejection of progressive reforms to the healthcare industry is undebatable. Still, there are many in Congress who will have to make a decision whether to hold their noses and vote for the bill, or reject the notion that Lieberman should be allowed have his demands met. Wyles says he knows what he would do.
"I'd block it. I'm with Howard Dean. I understand people like [Oregon's Democratic Sen.] Ron Wyden saying there's some good there," he said. "But maybe that's why I wouldn't make a good politician: I speak my mind."
While speaking one's mind may not be the best tactic for a successful political career, certainly Lieberman's strategy does not bode well for his reelection. Not only is Lieberman extremely unpopular in his home state (recent polls indicate he would lose his seat if an election were held today) but Connecticut voters also strongly favor a public option.
Though he isn't up for reelection until 2012, liberals will not forget this latest slight very quickly. Regardless of his chances, however, Wyles doesn't think Lieberman is committing political suicide (at least not knowingly).
"I think he still thinks he's going to keep his seat. He's got a monstrous ego," Wyles explained. Which is not to say he thinks Lieberman stands a chance: "I don't know how he can play this game of 'honorable person seeking to do right by the people.'"
Honestly, I don't know either.