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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lieberman Dodges the Bullet He Fired

As you probably have heard by now, Senate Democrats today voted by a considerable margin to let Joe Lieberman retain his chairmanship of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and thus secure his continued participation in the Senate Democratic Caucus. His “punishment” for endorsing John McCain for President, for campaigning for him, for speaking at the Republican National Convention, and for repeating and even amplifying GOP talking points against Barack Obama, was to give up his spot on the Environment and Public Works Committee, including chairmanship of a climate change subcommittee. Off-the-record (of course), Senate Democrats were saying that President-elect Barack Obama’s encouragement of tolerance for Lieberman was a key factor in their decision.
Since everyone in the chattering classes will have an opinion on this development, I will note my longstanding personal opposition (here, and most recently here) to anything like a free pass for Joe Lieberman’s apostasy. While I’ve never been a Lieberman-hater, I simply think he crossed a line that incredibly few sitting members of Congress in either party have ever crossed, and even fewer (you have to go all the way back to 1956 for an parallel) have crossed without losing their seniority entirely. And this line–you do not endorse the other party’s presidential candidate–represents the absolute irreducible minimum of what we must expect of federal elected officials who want to affiliate in any way with the Democratic Party. The refusal to apply this principle–not angrily, or vengefully, but resolutely–is not some sort of signal of a “Big Tent” party; indeed, it most offends moderate-to-conservative Democrats past and present who have respected this one simple rule, and somehow managed to avoid Republican presidential campaign rallies. Reimposing this rule in the future will be difficult, and we all may come to regret that.
As it happens, I wound up appearing this afternoon on the syndicated public radio program “To the Point,” with Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake, and Jamie Kirchick of The New Republic, to discuss the Lieberman issue. I was rather lonely with my simple “minimum requirement to be a Democrat” argument, since Jane maintained that Lieberman’s poor handling of his committee chairmanship, not his endorsement of McCain, was the reason he should be relieved of his gavel. Meanwhile, Kirchick (generally an abrasive bait-the-left neocon zealot, and best I can tell, not any sort of Democrat) made the novel argument that having run against the Democratic nominee for the Senate in 2006, Lieberman had no obligation to support the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, on the theory, I suppose, that one act of apostasy justifies another. It had to make you wonder this: if John McCain had gotten his (apparent) wish, and Lieberman had been his running-mate and lost, would Senate Democrats still welcome him back into the fold? Are there any limits at all to the elastic definition of who can join the Democratic Caucus?
Well, whatever. While I remain upset at this decision to exempt Joe Lieberman from the most basic standards of party loyalty, I don’t plan to obsess about it; Senate Democrats, Barack Obama, and the Democratic Party have much bigger fish to fry. There’s some private talk in progressive circles in the wake of this event that Lieberman might now become slavishly loyal to Senate Democrats, and particularly to Obama, understanding that he’s dodged the very bullet he fired by his support for McCain. Maybe it will all work out for the best. And perhaps the political value of a Christlike gesture from Obama, to the benefit of a politician so recently spurned by the dominant conservative wing of the GOP, outweighs its cost. But no one is required to be happy about it.

2 comments on “Lieberman Dodges the Bullet He Fired

  1. ducdebrabant on

    I’m a loyal Democrat. Lieberman is not. I hold no cards. Lieberman holds some. That’s all our leaders care about — do you have the cards. To hell with what I think about anything is their attitude.

  2. velocipede on

    I think there are two factors at play here.
    Obama is trying to convert opponents into allies, as exemplified by his recent meeting with McCain and his forgiving words for Joe. I think the Senate Dems respect this, recognizing the need to align as much political power as possible in order to face the serious crises of the day.
    The second factor, which is really just an aspect of the above, is achieving the magic 60—not in the sense of 60 Democratic Senators, which is probably not going to happen—but in the sense of keeping Joe in the fold and being able to tug him a little harder on votes if he hesitates in the future.


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