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The Democrats Blinked

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, December 17, 2009

By bowing to Sen. Joseph Lieberman and his obstructive pals in both parties on health care reform, President Obama has confirmed what Republicans always say about Democrats: They simply aren't strong enough to govern. Or at least the Democrats elected last year -- and their colleagues in the Senate leadership -- don't seem to be.

Their moment of truth came when Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and self-styled tough guy from Chicago, urged the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to strip out the most progressive aspects of the proposed health care reform bill in order to appease Lieberman. Unless the Connecticut senator got his way, he threatened to join a Republican filibuster -- conniving with a political minority to kill reforms that a majority of Americans has wanted and needed for decades.

Neither Emanuel nor his boss possesses the courage to call the bluff of the reform opponents and urge a victory for that majority through the legislative process known as "reconciliation," which allows the Senate leadership to stuff a sock in the mouth of the filibuster. Instead, they have surrendered to the same forces that want nothing more than to frustrate and ruin them.

Not surprisingly, this spectacle of capitulation evokes disgust among many Democrats, surpassed only by the revulsion they feel as they gaze upon Lieberman's self-satisfied grin. His inconsistency is designed not to achieve any principled outcome but to create turmoil in the legislative process.

He now says, for instance, that Americans between 55 and 64 years old must not be permitted to purchase coverage under Medicare, as Senate Democrats wanted. But that is precisely what he endorsed when he ran for vice president with Al Gore in 2000, when he ran for president himself in 2004 and as recently as three months ago, when he gave an interview on health care reform to a newspaper in his home state.

Back when he was running for re-election in 2006, he sought desperately to persuade Connecticut voters that he shared their progressive views despite his support for the Iraq war. "I'm saying to the people of Connecticut, I can do more for you and your families to get something done to make health care affordable, to get universal health insurance," he proclaimed during a debate with challenger Ned Lamont. "That's what the Democratic Party is all about."

By now we know that he doesn't really care what the Democratic Party is all about -- especially when the issue is achieving reforms of health care that have been a central objective of Democrats throughout his lifetime. He is said to care much more about avenging his defeat by Democratic voters in the primary three years ago.

But there is no need to speculate on his lowdown motives. Everyone knows he is a servant of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries that have always paid his campaign bills and sometimes maintained his spouse, Hadassah, on their payrolls, either directly or indirectly. He is aggressively eager to block legislation inimical to their interests.

While observing the worst expressions of Lieberman's character, the public has learned about the president's defects, as well. Three years ago, Obama supported the Connecticut senator when few liberals would and then defended his senatorial privileges this year, even after he had endorsed and campaigned for John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008. Now Lieberman has repaid those favors with spite --and that smart, tenacious, cool leader in the White House did nothing but flinch.

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