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Democrats should heed Lieberman, not vilify him

By John Feehery, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Feehery: Joe Lieberman controls the fate of health bill, a key issue to Democrats' future
  • Lieberman has gone from Democrats' standard bearer to subversive, Feehery writes
  • Feehery: Lieberman speaks for the "values" voters who saved his career
  • He says Democrats would do well to take his advice rather than go after him
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Editor's note: John Feehery worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. He is president of Feehery Group, a Washington-based advocacy firm that has represented clients such as News Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He also was a government relations executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America.

Washington, D.C. (CNN) -- Winston Churchill once exclaimed, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

Joe Lieberman knows that exhilaration better than most.

In 2006, the Democratic establishment took a shot at Mr. Lieberman, and it missed.

Now, the Connecticut senator is dictating the terms of a health care package that could determine the political future of the party that tried to end his career.

Predictably, the left wing of the party has decided to attack, with all of its might, their former vice presidential standard bearer. They have called him a traitor, sell-out and worse.

They have attacked his wife's career -- she lobbies for funding to end breast cancer and formerly worked for insurance companies.

Think Progress, a left-wing group, has launched a campaign to get Harry Reid to strip Lieberman of his committee chairmanship.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein writes Lieberman "seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score."

John McCain, Lieberman's closest friend in the Senate, has called these attacks a "disgrace."

Lieberman says that all he wants to do is keep faith with the president's health care goals. "I am for reform," he says. He wants a new deal that won't include either a public option or an expansion of Medicare to those aged 55.

He also wants a health care reform package that actually bends the cost curve down. While McCain ran as a maverick in last year's presidential campaign, it is Lieberman who is the real McCoy when it comes to who is more "mavericky."

You probably have to stretch back to Teddy Roosevelt to see a comparable shift from Lieberman's status from standard bearer to subversive.

Roosevelt, after serving two terms as president, grew frustrated with his successor's policies -- which he deemed not progressive enough -- and ran a third party candidacy against him. Roosevelt lost, but so did William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson ascended to the White House.

Lieberman, who only nine years ago campaigned as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, last year was seriously considered as a possible Republican vice presidential nominee -- and perhaps would have been a better choice for John McCain than Sarah Palin.

In 2000, Lieberman supported the Medicare buy-in. Now, the left, and some in the media, are calling him a hypocrite for changing his position on Medicare eligibility. But Lieberman says that times change, and we can't afford that idea anymore. But that explanation, not matter how true, hasn't mollified the liberal blogosphere.

And now, he holds the fate of President Obama's key legislative initiative -- a president he campaigned so hard to defeat -- in the palm of his hands.

That can't be a comforting thought to the White House or to liberal Democrats who still can't figure out what happened to the liberal paradise they thought would be opened to them with the big electoral wins in 2008.

The best thing that the Democrats could do for their own political health is to take Lieberman's advice and dramatically scale back the health care legislation. According to most polls, the support for the president's health care plan has been dropping.

According to a new poll completed by Resurgent Republic, a conservative Republican organization, "voters age 55 and older oppose the health care reforms being debated in Congress by 48 to 39 percent."

These voters think that the proposals will increase their taxes, make their health care costs more expensive, increase their premiums and increase the debt.

And in an election year that will hinge on the concerns of independent and older voters, passing a huge bill that angers those voters will be a political disaster for all Democrats.

Lieberman knows older voters. He knows independent voters. He has made a career out of talking to the values of these folks. When Bill Clinton embarrassed himself with Monica Lewinsky, it was Lieberman who condemned him in the name of common decency.

When Lieberman said that violent video games should be more tightly regulated, he was speaking to the concerns of those values voters. When he came out in favor of a vigorous response to the attacks of 9/11 and then spoke out in favor of the Iraq War, he was talking to those voters.

So, when Lieberman says that the Democrats have to dramatically scale back their health care plans, he speaks for those voters who saved his career when the Democratic establishment might have ended it.

Lieberman now gives the Democrats their last best chance to save their political fortunes before it is too late.

The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party -- as Howard Dean might say -- probably won't see Lieberman's efforts for what they really are, a lifeline for their political fortunes. They will probably continue to call him a traitor, a sell-out, a hypocrite, a liar and a cheat.

And they will probably continue to push for a legislative package that will doom their political fortunes in less than a year.

Lieberman the subversive is trying to save the Democrats from themselves. Since I'm a Republican, I, for one, hope he is unsuccessful.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Feehery.