Why the Democrats - and Obama - Forgave Lieberman
By JAY NEWTON-SMALL / WASHINGTON
Throughout his political career - from his earliest days as a state senator and Connecticut attorney general to his roles as U.S. senator, Vice Presidential nominee, pariah to the left and prominent endorser of John McCain - Joe Lieberman has never been shy about speaking his mind. That outspokenness on the campaign trail is what got him in his recent predicament, where his fate as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and member of the Democratic caucus depended on the good graces of Senate Democrats.
Lieberman easily won the vote on Tuesday allowing him to keep his chairmanships, but he might not have been so fortunate without the implicit backing of President-elect Barack Obama, the same man Lieberman said so many nasty things about during the race for the White House. Yet Obama wasn't just acting out of bipartisan good will. In supporting Lieberman's continued inclusion in the Democratic caucus, he may have effectively defanged his toughest potential opponent in the Senate Democratic caucus. If Lieberman is anything, as he proved with John McCain, he's loyal - and now he owes Obama a big one. His job over the next few years, for the first time in his long political career, is to keep quiet.
The move is especially savvy because Obama - and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - know that in order to achieve virtually anything on the Democrats' long list of ambitious legislation they will need every vote they can possibly get in the Senate. Obama's biggest challenge in both chambers of Congress will be keeping the varying factions of his own party together, especially more liberal members and the more conservative so-called Blue Dog Democrats. To that end Lieberman can be an asset, especially in helping to convince his fellow moderate members in the so-called Gang of 14, including some Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. "We need every person that we can in Congress working constructively to move forward with the new agenda for our country," says Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "Look, we're the majority party, we have the responsibility to act, and we've got to bring in the broadest possible coalition in order to get that
done, and Senator Lieberman can be a very valuable member of our team."
The Gang of 14 - or what's left of it, now that Republicans John Warner, Mike DeWine and Lincoln Chafee have all either retired or lost re-election bids - came into existence in the Spring of 2005 to prevent the far left and right wings of the two parties from blowing up the Senate over several of President Bush's judicial appointments. Senate Republicans wanted to use an arcane Senate rule to effectively overcome, and therefore destroy, the fillibuster. "While Presidents come and go every four to eight years, judges could be there 20 to 30 years. More and more decisions are being made by the courts," says Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "So you're going to have a number of instances - at least a few fairly soon - where you might get filibusters. And that's where calling in party loyalty matters and it makes sense to keep Lieberman in the fold."
For anybody with doubts about Lieberman's fate, Obama's meeting with McCain in Chicago on Monday was a clear sign that the President-elect is more interested in building bridges than tearing them down. Reid himself underscored that theme at a press conference following the caucus meeting where members voted 42-13 to allow Lieberman to remain in the caucus and to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee - though they stripped him of his seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. "I would defy anyone to be more angry than I was," said Reid. "But I also believe that if you look at the problems we face as a nation, is this a time we walk out of here saying, "Boy, did we get even"?
Reid's comments will likely do little to stem the tide of liberal anger that will come from Lieberman's continued presence in the caucus. Many Democrats were already angry at Lieberman's unyielding support of the war in Iraq long before he endorsed McCain and openly questioned Obama's patriotism during the course of the campaign. Some bloggers and activists argue that the Connecticut Independent should have lost his chairmanship not because of his past behavior, but because he could use the powerful committee, which has jurisdiction - and subpoena power - over the executive branch to make trouble for Obama. To strengthen his bargaining position, Lieberman had threatened to bolt to the Republican caucus if he lost his committee chair.
When asked repeatedly if he felt reprimanded, chagrined or punished, Lieberman himself responded with unwavering support for his fellow Democrats. "This is the beginning of a new chapter, and I know that my colleagues in the Senate Democratic Caucus were moved not only by the kind words that Senator Reid said about my longtime record, but by the appeal from President-elect Obama himself that the nation now unite to confront our very serious problems," said Lieberman, while admitting that he had uttered certain statements on the trail that he now regretted.
Many members of the caucus are still furious with Lieberman - 13 voted against him in the secret ballot and many more emerged saying that while this was good for the country they personally will have a tough time forgiving him. That lingering resentment should help guarantee his cooperation. "It is the iron law of reciprocity. He will remember and help those who helped him at a critical time in the future," says James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "It is politically smart. The President and the Democrats will need him in the future. It is part of building bipartisanship and political capital."