“Senator Lieberman is a valued member of the caucus, and he votes with the Democrats a majority of the time,” — Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“Without a doubt, Lieberman has betrayed the Democrats every time he could get a chance.” — user reason on Alternet.
“One of these things is not like the other.” — Susan on Sesame Street.
It can’t be the case that “Lieberman has betrayed the Democrats every time he could get a chance” and that “he votes with the Democrats a majority of the time.”
For some years now, progressive populists have railed against Joseph Lieberman, even mounting a successful primary challenge against him in Connecticut in 2006 (Republican voters crossed party lines to vote Lieberman back into the Senate in November). For those same years, Democratic party institutional players have hushed such rebellious talk and insisted that Joseph Lieberman is playing with the Democratic team. To be sure, some of the latter talk has to do with Joseph Lieberman’s implicit threat that if his ego is not regularly stroked he will officially defect to the Republican Party and give the GOP a Senate majority. But as in the quote above, there is usually some claim to empirical truth: that Joseph Lieberman tends to side with the Democrats.
Is this true? Before looking into the question in detail, I’d assumed not. After all, our Progressive Action rating system for the Senate in the 110th Congress gives Joseph Lieberman a measly score of 13/100. This score means that when it comes to our list of important progressive bills, amendments and other points of decision in the U.S. Senate over the past two years, Joseph Lieberman has taken the progressive stance only 13 percent of the time. Among Democrats, this makes Lieberman only more progressive than Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. It also makes Joseph Lieberman less progressive than Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Susan Collins of Maine.
Looking at Overlap in the Support of Senate Bills
That’s one source of information which seems to back up the notion that Joseph Lieberman has really betrayed the progressive heart of the Democratic party (with the help of Senators Conrad, Nelson and Pryor, whose anti-progressivism slides on by without much notice). But that’s not the only source of information I’ve looked at. I’ve also been looking at the bills each Senator has touched in the 110th Congress, either as a principal sponsor or a supporting cosponsor. For the set of bills any one Senator has sponsored or cosponsored, what portion of them did Joseph Lieberman sponsor or cosponsor, too? The answer is a measure of how behaviorally close Joseph Lieberman is to each Senator.
Here are the results listed as a scatterplot, with each point representing one of the 98 Senators who have been in the Senate for the entire term so far. I’ve plotted the results against party affiliation:
This plot was based on the full set of 2,930 bills (not counting joint resolutions and other declarative bills; just the S.XXX bills) before the Senate in the 110th Congress, and the large number of bills provides a lot of chances for Joseph Lieberman to show his true colors. Although there’s some variation within each party, Joseph Lieberman tends to support a greater portion of the bills another Senator favors if that other Senator is a Democrat than if that other Senator is a Republican. That doesn’t seem to favor the “Lieberman has betrayed the Democrats every time he could get a chance” hypothesis.
As I’ve said, there is some variation within each party for the graph above, and our own Progressive Action ratings show that the extent of progressivism within the political parties varies somewhat. Could it be that it’s not Joseph Lieberman really betraying the Democratic Party, but instead ditching support for the kind of progressive policies that progressive Senators would support? To assess this possibility, let’s look at a scatterplot of the overlapping support between Lieberman and other Senators, but this time plotting it against our Progressive Action Score, not party:
[side note: notice that while Barack Obama has a slightly higher progressive action score in the Senate than Hillary Clinton, both are miles away in their approach from the paleoconservative John McCain. See that, Mr. Nader? There is a difference.]
I’ve color coded the most progressive Senators blue, the least progressive Senators red, and those in between a shade of gray to help your eye catch the pattern, which isn’t that strong. To that end, I’ve also added a best-fit line, which shows a positive relationship between the progressivism of a Senator and the extent to which Joseph Lieberman shares support of bills with that Senator. Our revised “Joseph Lieberman has betrayed progressives” hypothesis predicts a negative relationship.
Why the positive relationship? Let’s look hard at that graph. If we were to exclude all the cases below 25% shared bill support with Joseph Lieberman, there would be absolutely no relationship at all. The positive relationship between the extent of progressivism and the extent of shared bill support with Lieberman is due not to Joseph Lieberman’s pointed agreement with progressives, but rather due to Lieberman’s pointed disagreement with a subset of the least progressive members of the Senate. To a one, these Senators represent Deep Southern, Plains or Mountain states.
But What About Those Progressive Action Scores?
If we look at shared sponsorship/cosponsorship of all bills before the Senate, there doesn’t seem to be support for the hypotheses that Joseph Lieberman has betrayed the Democratic Party or shunned opportunities to find common cause with progressive Senators. And yet I return to Lieberman’s Progressive Action Score of just 13/100. This rating is based on some failures of omission by Lieberman in not supporting bills he should have supported, and on some failures of commission by Lieberman in actively supporting bills he should have opposed. Here are just a few of the acts or failures to act which have given Lieberman his lousy score:
- On February 12 2008, Senator Joseph Lieberman abandoned moderation and liberty to embrace the prerogatives of arbitrary authority in warrantless surveillance. Senator Lieberman voted in favor of S. 2248, the FISA Amendments Act.
- Senator Lieberman cast a YES vote to help pass the ironically named Protect America Act, a law which until it expired replaced judicial warrants with executive prerogative in Bush’s massive program of unaccountable surveillance.
- Two bills stand before the United States Senate that would shut down the gulag at Guanatanamo Bay. The Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility Closure Act of 2007 would require the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prisons within 120 days. S. 1249 gives George W. Bush one year to close the Guantanamo gulag down. Senator Lieberman has allowed the injustice of Guantanamo to continue unabated, neglecting to lend formal support to either of these bills.
- S. 1175, The Child Soldier Prevention Act, prohibits the government of the United States of America from providing military aid to any foreign government that uses child soldiers in its military, paramilitary forces, or other official or sanctioned armed groups. 34 Senators have signed their names to this bill. Joseph Lieberman hasn’t bothered.
- Two bills, S. 236 and S. 495, have been introduced this year that would force the White House to cooperate with efforts by Congress to gain oversight of the growing network of government databases used to spy on Americans. Joseph Lieberman has failed to support either measure.
- S.215 is a bill that would ensure “Net Neutrality” by prohibiting corporations from charging extra for fast carriage of certain content (and delivering the content of everyone else who doesn’t pony up slowly). Senator Lieberman hasn’t thrown his support behind this bill.
- S. 576 is a bill proposed in the Senate to repeal many of the most onerous features of the Military Commissions Act. The most progressive, pro-constitution members of the Senate have signed on. Joseph Lieberman hasn’t.
- Joseph Lieberman has refused to support a bill that would forbid the United States government from spending money to use, sell or transfer cluster bombs unless requirements are met to ensure kids in foreign countries stop getting get blown up by them when they idly pick them up years after a conflict.
That’s just a sample of bills that we here at Irregular Times feel are especially important because they hinge on issues of peace versus violence, freedom versus restriction, and the rule of law under the constitution versus the unleashed whims of arbitrary authority. These are bills which are especially important to the progressive cause of peace, freedom, and the rule of law. Lieberman’s opposition to these bills means something substantive and real in its impact upon the world.
So how, after considering all this, do we resolve the seeming contradiction? It seems to be a matter of focus. If we simply look at all bills, Joseph Lieberman seems as likely to work with Democrats and progressives as to work with Republicans and conservatives. If we only pay attention to this overall picture, we might conclude that Lieberman hasn’t so much betrayed the Democrats and progressives as he has become ecumenical, working with Republicans and conservatives as well. But when we shift our focus from all bills (no matter what their subject matter is) over to the most important bills of our day regarding peace, freedom and the rule of law, what we see is very different. Joseph Lieberman has a record of siding with the hawkish, freedom-squashing authoritarian forces in the Senate. For those of us who find these matters to be of central importance, Lieberman has executed a stunning betrayal — a betrayal that is no less real because it is swamped by cooperation on bills of secondary importance.