In defense of two pariahs

Some moderately kind words for Joe Lieberman and Tim Eyman, and why they retain their popularity with voters.
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Tim Eyman, head of Washington's government-in-exile

Some moderately kind words for Joe Lieberman and Tim Eyman, and why they retain their popularity with voters.

Why not blast Sen. Joe Lieberman and ballot-measure king Tim Eyman outspokenly and regularly? Those were questions I got via several personal e-mails in response to my plea for greater civility in a beginning-of-a-new-decade essay.

There is nothing wrong with blasting public figures. But when the blasting goes beyond criticism of their public stances, and instead is personally insulting or abusive, all of us are diminished. Eyman today, you tomorrow. At any rate, here's a word about Lieberman and Eyman, perhaps the most pilloried figures by local columnists and bloggers.

Joe Lieberman was an effective Connecticut attorney general who was elected to the U.S. Senate by a landslide. He is among the half-dozen brainiest members of that 100-member body. In 2000 he was the Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee. He has a wonderful sense of humor, is a committed family man, and is well respected by both Democratic and Republican colleagues. Lieberman, not surprisingly, is a strong supporter of Israel and has national security views not unlike those of former Washington Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson. He campaigned for Sen. John McCain in 2008 because of their shared national-security views.

Lieberman now is an Independent. He did not switch parties, as some officeholders have. Instead, he was defeated in a Democratic primary for his Connecticut Senate seat by a more leftish Democrat. He thus chose to run, in the general campaign, against both the Democratic and Republican Party nominees and defeated both handily. His constituents wanted to keep him in office. On return to the Senate, he chose to caucus with Democrats rather than Republicans, enabling them to maintain a filibuster-proof majority.

Recently he was the target of media and political broadsides because he (as well as several other Senate Democrats) opposed inclusion of a "public option" in pending health-care legislation. The public-option was deleted from the Senate version of the legislation, as had always been the expectation. Several other Senate Democrats extracted huge financial benefits for their states as their price for building a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority for the health-care bill. But they were not subjected to the rage directed against Lieberman.

I disagree with Lieberman on many issues. But I have no reason to believe that his views on any policy, including health policy, do not have a thought-through intellectual basis. I know him to be an honest man. If his voters don't like his performance, they can reject him when he seeks reelection.

Tim Eyman nettles state and local elected officials, and most local media commentators, because he insistently introduces ballot measures that would limit public spending or taxing. I dislike ballot measures in general, believing them to be easily manipulated by single-issue or single-interest groups as a way around deliberative executive/legislative policymaking. They have contributed greatly to California's intensive-care status and, in general, invite elected officials to buck politically difficult decisions to an electorate often ill-prepared to assess them. (One egregious example was the ballot measure asking voters to choose the most desirable alternative to the Alaskan Way Viaduct.).

But we should recognize that our state and city have become notorious for careless tax-and-spending policies. Influential corporations and sectors get huge public tax breaks that cut a hole in the state revenue base. The state tax code is highly regressive, laying heavy burdens on middle-income taxpayers, homeowners, and small-business owners. Public employee and teachers unions, with high political clout, get pay and benefit raises even when private-sector workers are losing their jobs. In Seattle, huge capital projects get launched without regard for our ability to pay for them. Both the state and city budgets remain deeply in the red. It is estimated that our state government will run out of money in nine months unless taxing and spending adjustments are made in this legislative session.

If our elected officials cannot make responsible taxing and spending decisions, what can be done that would be better than Eyman initiatives? My own solution would be to throw them out and elect replacements. But many have "safe" seats and are hard to displace. Thus we get Eyman's ballot-measure solution: If these guys won't do their job, he says, let's set up inflexible taxing and spending limits that will force them to do tighten belts.

Eyman's efforts usually get lots of votes but, in the end, fail. Even when they fail, however, they maintain populist pressure on the elected, and inhibit other spending sprees. Occasionally they succeed. His performance-audit measure, approved overwhelmingly by state voters, has in fact been quite successful in exposing shoddy practices at state and local public agencies.

Why make Eyman the heavy? So long as those officially in charge keep flubbing taxing/spending decisions, Eyman will have a following. When they begin to do better, Eyman will disappear.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of