A Senate Divided Is Good for Lieberman

Less than a week from the elections, it’s getting increasingly easy to envision what for the Republicans would be a historically gruesome Election Night scene:

Rick Santorum’s wearing toe tags. Lincoln Chafee’s sleeping with the fishes in Narragansett Bay. Mike DeWine’s just trying to hang on until the priest arrives. All that’s left of George Allen and Bob Corker are chalk outlines. And Conrad Burns—he caught one glimpse of the early precincts, nodded grimly and took the gas pipe.

That six-seat wipeout—once a fanciful notion, but now increasingly plausible—would probably provide Democrats with the 51 votes they’d need to claim a bare majority when the Senate reconvenes in January.

That is, assuming Joe Lieberman’s on board.

Despite losing his party’s primary, Mr. Lieberman—currently a “petitioning Democrat” out of Connecticut—is as much a lock to retain his seat as the aforementioned Republicans are to lose theirs.

And since Mr. Lieberman has, in his earnest Droopy Dog voice, repeatedly affirmed his intention of returning to the Democratic fold upon his re-election, it renders his autumn rematch with Ned Lamont inconsequential to the matter of partisan control of the Senate.

“He’s been promised by the Senate Democrats that he’s going to keep his seniority,” confirmed Dan Gerstein, Mr. Lieberman’s campaign press secretary. “There’s no reason to waver. It’s a total non-issue.”

That should figure to be the end of the matter.

But recall the circumstances under which Mr. Lieberman began to avow that—whether as a Democrat or an independent—he’d vote with the Democrats to organize the Senate next year: It was back in July, as his Democratic primary contest with Mr. Lamont neared the home stretch, when a quirk in Connecticut’s election laws forced him to begin gathering signatures for his insurance-policy independent candidacy.

In other words, Mr. Lieberman really didn’t have a choice then. And any public retreat from that posture before Election Day would only play into Mr. Lamont’s hands, needlessly lending life to the Greenwich cable baron’s foundering campaign.

But next Tuesday, Mr. Lieberman will be in a position to name his price.

If the Republicans were somehow to bait him into defecting, the chamber could be thrown into a 50-50 tie—which would then be broken in the G.O.P.’s favor by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Republicans would certainly have reason to make a run at him—especially if, as expected, they are swept out of the leadership of the House and Mr. Lieberman represents their only hope of retaining some measure of legislative power.

Ultimately, though, it is the Democrats who would have the advantage in any bidding war for Mr. Lieberman’s loyalties.

The Senate’s Democratic chieftains—while nominally aligning themselves with Mr. Lamont—have assigned the Connecticut contest to roughly the same fall priority level as a race for student-body president, pre-emptively minimizing post-election tensions.

And, assuming they do win a majority, they’re fully prepared to hand Mr. Lieberman the gavel to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Maybe the G.O.P. would shuffle a few chairs and dangle, say, the Committee on Armed Services. But that’s about it.

“Aside from the Democrats actually taking away his seniority, I’m not sure there’s any acceptable reason Lieberman could take to the voters [to switch], given what he’s already said,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The only thing that seems certain is that Mr. Lieberman, after his ignominious defeat in the primary, is going to be left with more power and influence than ever before—wherever his party loyalties lie.

The closely divided Senate that Ms. Duffy and others predict would afford Mr. Lieberman unique clout: the ability to leverage his tie-breaking independence on vote after vote for—well, just about anything on his wish list. And having been rejected by Connecticut’s Democrats in the primary—and actively opposed by some of his Senate colleagues in the general—his wont to go against his party on crucial votes is likely to become only more pronounced.

Far from sending mixed signals, then, the voters of Connecticut will have used this year’s primary and general elections to create their own national power-broker.

Understandably, his intra-party detractors will not enjoy Mr. Lieberman’s victory speech next Tuesday night. But if he ends up the 51st Democratic vote in the Senate, the real value of his triumph within the party might be that it provides a badly needed lesson in pragmatism.