The Petty Revenge of Joe Lieberman

Maybe it’s an oversimplication to say that Joe Lieberman’s actions during his fourth term in the Senate can be explained by a simple desire to get even with the Democrats who abandoned him in his 2006 re-election bid. Maybe.

But his appearance on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” in which he attempted to explain his opposition to the public option, sure seemed to suggest that he’s willing to do or say anything to derail the Democratic agenda.  

The Connecticut senator – whose state includes Hartford, the so-called insurance capital of the world, and who has been the recipient of more than $800,000 in health insurance industry money this decade and – repeated his usual beside-the-point objections (“It won’t force one insurance company to give insurance to somebody who’s got a pre-existing condition”) before adding a new one.

“And it won’t even lower the cost of health insurance,” Lieberman said, “which the advocates said it originally would, because the Congressional Budget Office has now said to us that the public option in Senator Reid’s bill will actually charge more for insurance than the average charge by health insurance companies.”

This is about as disingenuous as it gets.

Yes, it’s true: the C.B.O.’s analysis of both the Senate and House health care bills concluded that the average premium for the government-run plan would be higher than the average premium for a private plan offered on the same exchange. This has become one of the new favorite talking points for Republican obstructionists – and Lieberman.

But what Lieberman (very intentionally) failed to mention is that this is only true because, in an effort to accommodate “centrists” like him, the public option has been repeatedly watered down as it has made its way through the congressional process.

Before the process even started, for instance, it was determined that the public option – a government-run alternative that would compete with private plans on a newly created insurance exchange – would only be available to those who aren’t already eligible to receive health insurance through their employers.

In effect, then, about 85 percent of Americans won’t have the “option” of choosing the public plan as it is now envisioned. This was done to lessen fears of a “government takeover” – fears that Lieberman and his ilk have nonetheless pushed.

But this wasn’t enough for the centrists. Aware that a plan that would be available to so few Americans might become a dumping ground for high-cost individuals, Democrats in the House initially proposed that the reimbursement levels for the public plan be pegged to Medicare’s low rates. This would have made premiums vastly more affordable for individuals and, as a result, created competitive pressure for private insurers to lower their own rates.

The centrists wouldn’t stand for this, though, and House leaders were forced to scrap the Medicare provision from their final plan, leaving the public plan to negotiate its own rates with providers. (A similar effort in the Senate to use Medicare rates died in the Finance Committee back in September.) This ensured that premiums for the public plan would be more expensive than private plans. With a relatively small pool of customers and a disproportionately large number of them being high-cost, the public plan won’t have any leverage to negotiate low rates – so of course the private plans will be cheaper.

In effect, Lieberman and his buddies created a self-fulfilling prophecy. They did everything they could to make the public option as expensive as possible – and then began attacking it for its high cost. Pubic option premiums could be far cheaper than they now figure to be – and they would be, if the Medicare provision hadn’t been killed.

Lieberman seems to have the upper hand right now. On Saturday, he joined Democrats in killing the G.O.P.’s first health care filibuster, but – as he made clear on “Meet the Press” – that vote really means nothing.

Lieberman and other centrists – like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu – merely acceded to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s request that they not stand in the way of a formal Senate debate on the bill. This is quite literally the least they can do to maintain their (relatively) good standing within the Democratic Caucus. But if the bill isn’t significantly altered – read: if the public option isn’t gutted even more – they won’t be there to stop the next G.O.P. filibuster.

So Lieberman is probably feeling pretty good about himself these days. He spent last year campaigning for John McCain and trashing Barack Obama to anyone who’d listen – then sweet-talked Democrats into allowing him to keep his committee chairmanship. And now he’s throwing himself into the G.O.P.’s health care pile-on – but because they need his vote so badly, Democrats have little choice but to take it.

The good news for Democrats is that the clock is ticking on Lieberman’s antics. His seat is up in 2012 and Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, seems ready to challenge him. Blumenthal, first elected in 1990, has used his office to gain the kind of transcendent popularity in his state that Andrew Cuomo now enjoys in New York. Lieberman could fortify himself with as much insurance industry cash and G.O.P. support as he wants; he’d be powerless to stop Blumenthal.

But that’s three years from now. For now, Lieberman can live out every revenge fantasy he spent the ’06 campaign concocting – while Democrats can only shake their heads that less than a decade ago they wanted to place him first in line to the presidency.    

More from Steve Kornacki:

Take It from Someone Who Knows Lieberman: He’s Gone for Good

Obama and the Reagan Trajectory

Betting on the Terrorists