Chasing the Joe Lieberman Booby Prize

030507 article wiseguys Chasing the Joe Lieberman Booby PrizeOf the suggestion that Senator Joseph Lieberman will up and leave the Democratic Party for good, thereby handing control of the Senate to the Republicans, two points must be emphasized up front.

One is how exceedingly unlikely it is that Mr. Lieberman will actually pull the trigger on a party switch, even if he did use an interview last week—yet again—to leave the door slightly ajar. Connecticut’s junior Senator has a well-established habit of flirting with boldness before pulling back—like when he toyed with marching to the White House to demand Bill Clinton’s resignation in 1998, only to settle for delivering a verbal wrist-slap on the Senate floor.

The other is that by simply entertaining the notion of a Lieberman defection, the Senator’s colleagues play directly into his hand, allowing him to demand—and receive—just about anything he likes from the Democratic leadership.

In other words, Mr. Lieberman—who is generally loyal to the Democratic party line, except on the issue of Iraq—has every reason to play it coy, and no incentive now to reiterate his pronouncements of last summer, when he swore up and down that upon being re-elected to the Senate as an independent, he’d return to the Democratic fold.

The Republicans, still searching for some political momentum after their drubbing last November, are understandably anxious to court the one-time Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, whose break with the Democratic mainstream on Middle Eastern policy is growing more pronounced by the day. They’ve certainly laid out the welcome mat: Nearly every Republican official in the country—with the glaring exception of war foe Chuck Hagel—has spent the last year very publicly stroking Mr. Lieberman’s ego.

And, certainly, the precedent is there for a prospective switch by Mr. Lieberman. The last time the Senate’s partisan balance was this close—Democrats now outnumber Republicans, 51-49—was six years ago, when the 2000 elections left the chamber split evenly between the parties, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie in the G.O.P.’s favor.

It was then, in the spring of 2001, that James Jeffords, a liberal Republican from Vermont, gave in to Democratic entreaties and left the G.O.P., flipping control of the Senate and delivering to the new Bush administration what was thought to be a devastating jolt.

But the Jeffords switch also serves to illustrate why the Republicans should be very careful what they wish for. Rather than serving as a harbinger of an electoral revolt against the Bush G.O.P. in 2002, the defection may actually have boosted the party’s fortunes in those midterm elections.

By giving Democrats control of the Senate for half of 2001 and all of 2002, Mr. Jeffords essentially stripped them of their best political weapon: their status as a powerless minority. Maddening as it was for them, the Democrats’ minority position served to unify their disparate elements in opposition to the majority party’s agenda.

Before Mr. Jeffords’ defection, with the G.O.P. in charge of the White House and the Congress, the Democrats’ prospects for 2002 seemed rosy. But control of the Senate put the Democrats on the spot and exposed the kinds of ugly fissures that simple, cohesive opposition would have glossed over. When the ballots were tallied that year, the Republicans had defied history by gaining two seats—and control of the chamber.

So far this year, the Republican minority in the Senate has been possessed of a unity of purpose that they lacked in the waning days of their majority. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, managed to corral almost every Republican—including some opponents of the war—behind a procedural effort to derail a vote on a resolution opposing President Bush’s troop-level increase in Iraq.

That kind of vote-herding will once again become nearly impossible if Mr. Lieberman were to put the Republicans in the majority. G.O.P. Senators would be forced back onto the defensive with an American public even more restless than it was last year, and by a Democratic-led House desperate for a partisan foil.

For the Republicans, Mr. Lieberman’s loyalty is fool’s gold. Yes, winning him over would mean committee chairmanships, better office space and some much-needed respect on the Hill. But in the Senate, the magic number to accomplish anything—as the G.O.P. itself just demonstrated in filibustering the war resolution—is 60, not 51. In that sense, the addition of Mr. Lieberman as the 50th G.O.P. vote (with Mr. Cheney adding the tie-breaking 51st) wouldn’t be as consequential as it’s cracked up to be.

Without Mr. Lieberman, it won’t be a fun 2007 for Republican Senators. But in terms of the next election, they may have him right where they want him.