The Carlo Rizzi of the Democratic party



There's something about Joe Lieberman that always prompts me to conjure The Godfather. Perhaps because he is so clearly the Carlo Rizzi of the Democratic party.

But here's the thing: What if Carlo Rizzi had indeed conspired with the Barzini family to turn Sonny Corleone into Swiss cheese at the toolboth, and Sonny's brother Michael had indeed unearthed Carlo's treachery...only to cut Carlo a break and allow him to fly off to Vegas for a new life of sun and fun and further treachery? Wouldn't we have ridiculed Michael as a naive softy if he had spared Carlo the shock of sudden death by strangulation? If he had told Carlo, "there's a car waiting to take you to the airport"...and he had meant it?

Yet that's how the Senate Democrats dealt last November with Lieberman's treachery. The allegedly Democratic-leaning independent had just returned from a grand campaign '08 adventure in which he had clearly crossed the line. Not only had he stumped for the Republican presidential candidate, but he had suggested on national television that Barack Obama might be a Marxist; that Obama wanted to practice "what used to be known as socialist theory"; that Obama favored "retreat in defeat from the field of battle." Lieberman had set up Obama for a hit, the hit had failed...yet there he was, in the weeks after the election, telling the Senate Democrats that he wanted to caucus with them in 2009. And not only did he want to caucus with them, he also felt he deserved to keep his chairmanship of the prestigious Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

We know, of course, what the Democrats decided to do: Nothing. Carlo/Joe got to keep his perks and his seniority. Obama was in a conciliatory mood, hoping to change the tone in Washington and all that, and he sent word not to touch the guy. Chris Dodd, Joe's Connecticut compadre, inadvertently did his own Godfather number when he told the Senate Democrats that Joe was "willing to be a member of your family." Joe himself promised Democrats that if they spared him, they would "not regret" their decision. The expectation was that even if Joe continued to vote like a hawk on foreign policy, he would at least hew to his Democratic roots and support the majority caucus on the big-ticket domestic issues. Such as health care.

Which brings us to health care, and Joe's announcement yesterday that he intends to side with the Republican family in the latter's street war against any health reform package that contains a government-run insurance option. He says he'll try to garrote the Democrats by working with the GOP to sustain a filibuster and thus prevent a final floor vote on such a bill. It'll take 60 votes (in other words, all 60 senators in the Democratic caucus) to cut off a filibuster via a cloture motion; Joe's decision is apparently the thanks that Democrats get for sparing him last November. (Here is Joe's decision, in parliamentary parlance: "If the bill remains what it is now, I will not be able to support a cloture motion for final passage.")

Joe still seems intent on taking revenge for the treatment he received in 2006, when few Senate Democrats came to his aid during his difficult party primary campaign; antiwar Democratic voters, fed up with Iraq and Joe's hawkishness, ultimately awarded the party nomination to antiwar challenger Ned Lamont. Joe won in Novemvber as an independent, essentially forming the Party of Joe...and apparently that's still his party. (By the way, one Senate Democrat who did come to his aid, who did stump for him during the primary, was Barack Obama. Which means that Joe has now stiffed Obama twice.)

We can't read Joe's mind and say conclusively that his public option naysaying stems from a fresh desire to treacherously twist the knife. But that seems the likeliest possibility. One can theorize that maybe it's because he takes donation money from the folks at Aetna, the giant insurer based in Connecticut; but Aetna's tally since 2005 is only $65,000, and nine other corporations have given Joe more during that time span.

One can also theorize that maybe Joe opposes the public option for substantive policy reasons, but the reasons he gave yesterday were basically a crock. He said, for instance, that the public option "creates a whole new government entitlement program for which taxpayers will be on the line." Factually wrong. Under a real government entitlement program (such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), Americans can broadly participate if they meet age or income criteria, and the money for such programs is earmarked in the budget. Whereas the public health option, offered in addition to the private plans, would be basically financed by the voluntary customers' premiums. Joe also said that he thinks a public option would create "trouble" for "the national debt," without once mentioning that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the most liberal public option would save $110 billion over 10 years while more modest versions would save around $25 billion.

To paraphrase what Tom Hagen said about Hyman Roth in Godfather II, Joe has played this one beautifully. He's sticking the knife into the naive Democrats who made nice to him. Unless Olympia Snowe comes to the Democrats' aid, Joe can now position himself as the pivotal character in the Senate health saga. The Democrats basically have no choice but to indulge him further; if they try to put the hit on him, why should he care? If he scuttles health reform and the Democrats pay a price for that at the polls next year, he'll shrug it off because he's not really a Democrat anyway. And he himself isn't up for re-election again until 2012, assuming he even wants to do that.

Perhaps the lesson of all this is that, while the Senate Democrats appear to have 60 filibuster-proof votes on paper, the magic number is really meaningless if the 60th vote belongs to an embittered disloyalist with no sense of gratitude, someone whose core conviction is that revenge is a dish best served cold.