Left-Right Lieberman

A quick note on Lieberman’s political vulnerability, and how he might have played his hand differently from 2004 on.

Just as Democratic AG Joe Lieberman brought down an idiosyncratic incumbent, Lowell Weicker, in 1988, it looks as though Democratic AG Richard Blumenthal could easily bring down the idiosyncratic Lieberman in 2012. A couple of years ago, I was thinking about Lieberman’s political future — who knows why? — and my thought was that he had to halt his perceived slide towards the right by embracing a quirky mix of left and right views, e.g., despite his historic ties to big business, I thought he should become a champion of sweeping reform of intellectual property laws: attack the DMCA, push for net neutrality, call for abolishing or at least reforming software patents, become the tribune of the cyber-transparency crowd. Had he taken these steps, he would have forced his critics in the netroots to say, “Lieberman is a complete bozo, but boy, he sure is good on IP issues!” I mean, perhaps this would have been totally worthless, but I don’t think so. Complicating the narrative his good. Apart from geek issues, Lieberman could also have been far more active in advocating equal rights for gays and lesbians, including using his credibility on defense issues to press for an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

As for right-leaning issues, he had room to maneuver on climate change, an area where he did build a strong portfolio, but perhaps not a sufficiently creative portfolio, e.g., he could have pursued an expensive version of the Break Through approach. Conservatives are happy to talk the Break Through talk, but they’re generally not willing to commit actual money, which is where Lieberman could have come in. To maintain his family-friendly cred, he could have pushed a Ponnuru-vian proposal on the child tax credit or, in keeping with the environmental theme, some kind of green payroll tax swap, though I tend to think this would be a tough trick to pull off. Another Lieberman-friendly, Connecticut-friendly tax idea: the Graetz plan, which would use VAT revenue to exempt the vast majority of the working population from paying income tax.

Moreover, Lieberman could have allied himself with the Bernard Schwartzman pro-infrastructure camp, a cause that would have resonated with suburban Connecticut and with a broader national constituency. The basic idea is that Lieberman remained an old school DLC Democrat as the issue mix changed and as the country moved on. Rather than stake out new centrist ground, he focused all of his energies, understandably, on foreign and defense policy. Here he tried to play the role of a domestic Tony Blair, moderating and restraining the Bush White House — but he had very little leverage as he lost the favor of others to his leaf. His support became a fig leaf rather than a serious political asset. I stress “political” because I think Lieberman’s intelligence and deep familiarity with the relevant issues was always an important asset when it came to thinking through how to turn around Iraq, etc.

There’s an obvious reason none of this happened: time and attention are a scarce resource. Still, this would have been interesting, and it would have insulated Lieberman from some heat to his left.