The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote about the farewell address of Senator Joe Lieberman yesterday, essentially depicting him as a fighter against the kind of partisanship that now grips that august chamber. Milbank writes of Lieberman that “[h]e tried to push back against the mindless partisanship…. and he paid dearly for it.” The thing is, Joe Lieberman’s occasional defiance of his party’s wishes were as often as not simply the mindless loyalty to narrow politically powerful constituencies.
Lieberman lamented in his final floor speech that “the greatest obstacle that I see standing between us and the brighter American future we all want is right here in Washington… It’s the partisan polarization of our politics which prevents us from making the principled compromises on which progress in a democracy depends.” While it’s hard to quibble with these broad sentiments, Lieberman exposed the flaw in his invocation of “principled compromise” in another line quoted by Milbank in which he said that such compromise requires “putting the interests of country and constituents ahead of the dictates of party.”[Emphasis is mine] The “dictates of party,” no matter what you think of their prudence, are nothing if not principled, and they get compromised quite frequently in Washington. It is “constituencies” who exert unprincipled influence on elected officials and who have the power to prevent compromise.
To juxtapose the national interest and the so-called “dictates of party” is reasonable enough, but to imply that the interests of the country are synonymous with those of one’s “constituency” is too cute by half, though I think particularly appropriate coming from Senator Lieberman. There have been many “maverick” senators, who have put their country over their political interests on occasion, but Joe Lieberman is not one of them. Lieberman’s alienation from his senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle in recent years, which is discussed by Milbank, is the result of Joe putting Joe first and then justifying it by scapegoating his party.
I don’t want to be too hard on Senator Lieberman. He was probably just more unlucky than most in terms of his conflicting “constituency” loyalties. In the main, he has been an effective U.S. Senator, but he is not an appropriate messenger on the counter productivity of “mindless” partisanship.