David Brooks on Joe Lieberman: Muddled Moderation

by A. Jay Adler on January 21, 2011
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There is more than a superficial appeal to the calming voice. While it sounds reasonable, and it appears to spy a path from lost to found – “if you can keep your head when all around you” and all that – it also reassures.  Often it is the still center that saves us.

But sometimes it’s just a muddle.

The moderating conservatism of David Brooks seems, in part, so moderate because conservatism today is otherwise so reactionary. The world is not always so moderate, though – the universe not so conservative a place. (Oh, that? That’s just a supernova destroying a planetary system, a black whole sucking in all light and matter and the time-space continuum.) It is one thing to have a moderate temperament; it is another to project a valuable moderation onto the stuff around you that is neither valuable nor moderate. So today, increasingly of that habit, David Brooks comes not to bury Joe Lieberman but to praise him. Titling Lieberman “A Most Valuable Democrat,” Brooks considers,

The question is whether politicians with Lieberman’s moderate and independent profile can survive in the current political climate. “I have more warm relationships with Democrats in Washington than in Connecticut,” Lieberman acknowledges.

It would be nice if voters made room for a few independents like this. There have been times, like during the health care debate, when I found Lieberman’s independence befuddling and detached from any evident intellectual moorings. But, in general, he has shown a courageous independence of mind.

There are plenty of team players in government who do whatever the leader says. There are too few difficult members, who have complicated minds, unusual perspectives, the toughness to withstand the party-line barrages and a practical interest in producing results.

No doubt, Republicans would like a whole party of “most valuable democrats.” But what is Lieberman most valuable for? There is no reason not believe his support of the Iraq War, based on what he knew at the time, to be anything but principled. However, his departing insistence, now, that the “evidence was very clear” from the Iraq Survey Group’s Duelfer Report that Saddam Hussein was developing WMD is pure Cheneyesque self-justifying dishonesty. It is not simply untrue of Iraq; it is untrue of the report.

Brooks cites a number of senators who allow that Lieberman drove them mad, but that they liked him. But there is a reason “friend” and “colleague” are not synonyms for “historian.” Even some very bad people have friends who will toast them and report of their love for their mothers. People have public records, and those must be judged on their own.

Publicly, the Democrat Joe Lieberman not only campaigned against a historic Democratic and American presidency, and for the Republican candidate; declaring Barack Obama not qualified to be president, he appeared very publicly and gladly – one might easily say smugly – at the Republican national convention. It is worth noting, first, how simply, plainly mistaken Lieberman was in all this. Only the purest of ideologues, incapable of separating policy difference from judgment of competence, can argue that Obama has not revealed his eminent personal qualification for the presidency. John McCain, in contrast, despite his many years of public service experience, fumbled his candidate response to the 2008 financial crisis, fostered in his campaign the beginnings of the demagogic hate fest against Obama that followed for two years, and recklessly and incompetently foisted on American society, in Sarah Palin, the most pernicious influence on the political scene since George Wallace and, before him, Joe McCarthy.

All this Joe Lieberman supported, in return for which he wanted to retain his homeland security committee chairmanship in a Democratic senate. He was, in other words, willing to sacrifice for his conscience.

The Democratic senators who voted, with Obama’s support, to let Lieberman retain that chairmanship, did so for practical political reasons – to retain his 60th vote as often as possible. That was a mark of their good sense and responsibility, not Lieberman’s. Writes Brooks,

There’s a theory going around that Lieberman was embittered by the trauma of 2006 when Democratic primary voters in Connecticut defeated him because of his support for the Iraq war. There’s little evidence to validate this.

Really? Here is Brooks again on what the consequences would have been if the Democrats had not permitted Lieberman his committee chairmanship.

If Lieberman had not been welcomed back by the Democrats, there might not have been a 60th vote for health care reform, and it would have failed.

There certainly would have been no victory for “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal without Lieberman’s tireless work and hawkish credentials. The Kerry-Lieberman climate bill came closer to passage than any other energy bill. Lieberman also provided crucial support or a swing vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the stimulus bill, the banking bill, the unemployment extension and several other measures.

This is to say, according to Brooks, that Lieberman’s recent support for repealing DADT, for which he has received much congratulation, would have been sacrificed to pique for not retaining his chairmanship? A man of conscience? Most valuable Democrat?

Brooks says there is little evidence of Lieberman’s bitterness over his 2006 rejection by Connecticut Democrats. In addition to the 2008 Republican convention, Brooks might look to his own words.

There have been times, like during the health care debate, when I found Lieberman’s independence befuddling and detached from any evident intellectual moorings.

Goodness. What might that have been about?

If you want to be valued for your independence and conscience, you can stab Caesar if you think it’s the thing to do. But you don’t ask for return of the dagger – clean, if you please – and then twist it in again.

AJA

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