Sen. Joe Lieberman’s latest threat to scuttle health-care reform – vowing to join a Republican filibuster to block an over-55 buy-in to Medicare, a proposal that he has long championed – is raising questions about his motives. But no one is mentioning the unmentionable, the cause that has come to define Lieberman’s career: Israel.
Is it possible that Lieberman’s obstructionist behavior doesn’t relate to Connecticut’s insurance industry or to his political ego – the two most cited explanations – but rather to a calculation that he can use his leverage on health care to limit the pressure that President Barack Obama can put on Israel to make concessions on a Mideast peace plan?
After all, the more common explanations of Lieberman’s behavior have holes in their logic.
While it is true that Lieberman’s constituent Hartford-based insurance companies fear any government intrusion in their industry, the actual proposals for the Medicare buy-in or the tightly constrained “public option” actually would benefit the industry in the near term.
Those uninsured Americans 55 to 64 are customers whom the insurance industry doesn’t want. They are the part of the uninsured population that is most likely to need medical care, which is why private insurers have driven up the rates so high that these people can’t afford to buy health insurance.
Letting these desperate Americans buy into Medicare wouldn’t cost the health insurance industry much of anything – and it would reduce the moral (and PR) crisis that has led so many Americans to view private insurers as vultures preying on the most vulnerable.
In his past position in favor of the Medicare buy-in, Lieberman has recognized this reality, noting that this over-55 group faces a particular crisis because they have “retired early or unfortunately have been laid off early” and can’t afford health insurance.
Though Lieberman has long been a major recipient of health insurance industry backing, that has never before prevented him from favoring this Medicare buy-in. Only now does Lieberman say that he would join a Republican filibuster to kill the entire bill if his earlier proposal is included.
So, Senate Democratic leaders have reportedly agreed to drop the buy-in provision to appease Lieberman even though such a watered-down Senate bill may complicate reconciliation with a more liberal House bill and is infuriating the Democratic base.
Similarly, Lieberman has protested any inclusion of a government-run insurance option even if it is only triggered by the failure of private insurers to offer affordable alternatives or if it is so tightly constrained that it would attract only a few million customers, again drawn primarily from the ranks of Americans most in need of medical care.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only about six million people would sign up for the House version of the public option whose rates would likely exceed those of private plans because the sick would gravitate to the government plan. The current Senate version, with a state-by-state opt-out provision, would draw even fewer customers, the CBO said.
Yet either version actually helps the health insurance industry by siphoning off sick people and thus allowing the industry to corner the market on healthier customers, where the biggest profits lie.
So, Lieberman may not be serving the industry’s best interests by jeopardizing passage of a health reform bill. Not only does the industry stand to pick up tens of millions of new customers who will be compelled to buy insurance – and sometimes with government subsidies – but a decent reform bill also blunts demands for more radical changes.
If Americans grow more furious with the current system – its rising costs and its failure to cover nearly 50 million people – voters might press for a single-payer approach which could eliminate private insurers altogether.
For these reasons, the Lieberman-is-in-the-pocket-of-the-insurance-lobby explanation isn’t entirely convincing.
Another hypothesis is that Lieberman’s behavior on health reform reflects his huge political ego and makes sense if he intends to seek re-election in 2012 as a “centrist” Republican.
However, that political positioning argument doesn’t hold much water either. If Lieberman is blamed for sabotaging health-care reform, he will solidify Democratic hatred of him, and many Republicans will still distrust his liberal positions on social issues like abortion.
I have a Democratic family member from Connecticut who helped launch Lieberman’s political career and who now considers that one of the biggest mistakes of her life. Lieberman might have softened that resentment by helping to pass a strong health-reform law, but his current position only energizes those voters determined to remove him from the Senate.
Which brings us to Israel, which arguably has become Lieberman’s most treasured priority in his political life.
Mark Vogel, chairman of the pro-Israel National Action Committee, once said, “Joe Lieberman, without exception, no conditions ... is the No. 1 pro-Israel advocate and leader in Congress. There is nobody who does more on behalf of Israel than Joe Lieberman.”
It was Lieberman’s embrace of neoconservative ideology and his aggressive support for wars against Israel’s Muslim enemies, the likes of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, that led Connecticut Democrats to deny Lieberman the Senate nomination in 2006 and prompted his successful run as an Independent.
Partly because Obama opposed the Iraq War, Lieberman went on the stump for Republican John McCain in 2008, even questioning Obama’s patriotism.
Standing with McCain in August 2008, Lieberman called the election a choice “between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not.’
Since the start of Obama’s presidency, Israel’s hawkish Likud government has made no secret of its concern that Obama might pressure it into making territorial and other concessions to the Palestinians and Syria to secure a Mideast peace agreement.
In Washington, the still-influential neocons also have been demanding that Obama continue Bush’s belligerent policies and side with Israel in a hard-line approach to Iran.
In that sense, Lieberman and the neocons have much in common with Republicans, such as Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, who declared in July that “If we’re able to stop Obama on this [health reform], it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”
A broken Obama could be easier to manipulate regarding Mideast peace talks and Iran.
In recent months, Washington’s neocons hectored Obama about escalating the war in Afghanistan and crowed about their success when Obama agreed recently to dispatch 30,000 more troops.
Now, the neocons see their chance to complete Obama’s transformation into a more articulate version of George W. Bush, making Obama a President who can sell their pro-war positions with much more polish and class.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10 drew high marks from neocons as he minimized the bloody excesses of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy behind the five-word phrase “whatever mistakes we have made” and asserted the overarching morality of U.S. military interventions.
“The shift in rhetoric at Oslo was striking,” observed neocon theorist Robert Kagan in a Washington Post op-ed on Dec. 13. “Gone was the vaguely left-revisionist language that flavored earlier speeches, highlighting the low points of American global leadership -- the coups and ill-considered wars -- and low-balling the highlights, such as the Cold War triumph.”
If Lieberman succeeds in sinking Obama’s chief domestic priority – health care reform – or waters it down so much that it alienates Obama from his liberal base, Obama may find himself essentially the captive of the neocons, needing their blessing to maintain any political viability in Washington.
Lieberman has been careful not to connect his disruptive behavior on health-care reform to his support for Israel, but there can be little doubt that a chastened Obama, either defeated on health care or forced to sign a bill that liberals will view as a betrayal, will have much less political capital to expend in applying pressure on Israel.
A hobbled Obama won’t be able to push Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt expansion of West Bank settlements or to take other steps that might lead to a Palestinian state. Obama also could be pushed around himself if Israel – itself an undeclared nuclear power – decides to launch airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Israel explanation for Lieberman’s behavior on health-care reform is the one that seems to make the most sense.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on December 16, 2009.