Like any liberal grad student, I hate Joe Lieberman. I hate his sanctimonious self-righteousness and his spiteful flip-flopping. I hate that he looks like a harmless Jewish grandfather (as a Jew, I definitely hate that he should have been the first Jewish VP). I hate his belligerent foreign policy views, and I especially hate his singularly evil position in the health care debate, which seems to me both incredibly harmful (Medicare expansion would be great) and obnoxiously self-centered (he just wants to piss off liberals).
That said, you have to give Joe credit for doing something that voters all claim they want but believe they rarely see: choosing principle over self-interest. Connecticut’s a pretty liberal state; Joe’s coming up for reelection in 2012, which is probably going to be a pro-Democratic year (the economy will almost certainly be improving; troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq will be winding down; there doesn’t look to be a really charismatic Republican candidate). Had Lieberman responded to the 2006 Lamont challenge by tacking left and supporting Democrats on major issues (particulalry domestic policy, where he was already pretty solidly Democratic anyway), his reelection chances would almost certainly be better. (Some Democrats are now accusing Lieberman becoming more right-wing for his 2012 reelection, but I think this is just sour grapes on their part; in any event, had he become more liberal starting in 2006, he’d stand a better chance of winning in 2012).
I hear a lot of people decry politicans’ self-interest and perfidy as a reason for institutional disfunction. They’re wrong; I’d take vote-conscious over principled anytime. I suppose it’s true that if every politician were completely altruistic while in office, we wouldn’t see a lot of the inefficient pork and crass lobbyist-created loopholes that exploit voters’ individually rational ignorance. Turning back to the real world, however, I’d much rather a bunch of vote-obsessed politicans than those acting out their higher principles in ways their voters wouldn’t want.
Lieberman’s may seem like a straw man example used to prove my point, since he’s throwing a tantrum rather than taking a principled stand. Such a distinction just romanticizes principle, at least as acted out by politicians. Senators are very busy people who don’t have time to form detailed policy views on most issues. It’s actually stunning to realize the range and depth of issues that national legislators are expected to have policy views on: they vote on every issue that affects the federal government both at home and abroad. Then, they have to actually constantly explain themselves to their constituents and the press, with answers that sound superficially well-informed, about any stupid minutiae that someone wants to ask them. Worse, if they give too detailed an answer, it locks them in later on and can be used to characterize them as duplicitous flip-floppers. Moreover, the primary personal trait that legislators are selected for is their ability not to perceptively analyze policy, but to get reelected, which, when fundraising is taken into account, takes up the majority of their time.
Legislators just use rough heuristics to decide most of their votes; usually the question is just – what does my party support? When they act out of “principle,” it’s oftentimes just going to be some random form of personal preference. (John McCain’s leftward move post-2000 primary can easily be read in this light). We all love the idea of Mr. Smith in Washington, fighting the good fight to help build a boys camp (or the modern equivalent); the mavericky reality is more like good ‘ole Joe.