Lieberman’s Losing Bid for Influence

Maybe the 50 members of the Senate’s Democratic Caucus should just call the bluff of their 51st vote and tell

Maybe the 50 members of the Senate’s Democratic Caucus should just call the bluff of their 51st vote and tell Joe Lieberman to take a hike.

The junior Senator from Connecticut, who was elected as an independent last year after losing the faith of his home state’s Democratic Party, continues to flaunt his tie-breaking status, all but calling his former partisan colleagues terrorist coddlers and daring them to do something – anything – about it.

It’s a bullying, childish game he’s playing. If Mr. Lieberman were to walk away from the Democrats completely and to caucus with Senate Republicans, he would hand the G.O.P. its magical 50th vote, which, along with Vice-President Cheney’s vote, would strip Democrats of the narrow majority they won in the chamber last November. And so he chooses to torment the Democrats, siding with them for organizational purposes only to amplify – at every pivotal turn in the four-plus-year evolution of the Iraq War – the White House’s most shrill and demagogic attacks on the party’s foreign policy credibility.

He was at it again this week.

“There is a very strong group within the party,” Mr. Lieberman said of the Democrats in an interview with The Hill, “ that I think doesn’t take the threat of Islamist terrorism seriously enough.”

He went on to suggest that Democratic efforts to force and end to the war are a function of partisanship, with Democrats simply deciding that “anything President Bush is for, they’ll be against, and that’s wrong.”

“I’m surprised and disappointed that the split has followed partisan lines so much,” he told the paper.

Never mind that Mr. Lieberman has been every bit the partisan that he accuses Democrats of being on the Iraq question: There hasn’t been a single consequential vote on which he’s strayed from the G.O.P. line.

This rhetorical disingenuousness is, of course, nothing new for “Holy Joe,” who routinely tries to pass off his hawkish war posture– which is at odds with the overwhelming majority of the American public – as the voice of bipartisan consensus-building. He champions the surge, reads from the White House’s script, and threatens to support next year’s Republican presidential nominee. And if his Democratic Senate colleagues have any thought of calling him out in public, well, there’s always the threat he reiterated to The Hill this week.

“I wouldn’t foreclose it as a possibility,” he said when asked if he might switch parties and become a Republican, “but I hope that I don’t reach that point.”

But what Harry Reid and Company might not realize is that, for all of Mr. Lieberman’s threats, Senate Democrats actually have the upper hand in the relationship with Mr. Lieberman. If they were to lay down the law with Mr. Lieberman, he might not run to the G.O.P. as quickly as he wants Democrats to believe he would. And even if he did, it would be a relatively minor and very short-term setback for Democrats – but one with long-lasting implications for Mr. Lieberman.

Mr. Lieberman’s association with the Democrats, for all his griping, is actually quite beneficial to him.

For one thing, it gives him a gavel – the chairmanship of the Homeland Security committee. Sure, he could keep that if he jumped ship, and in fact, he might do himself one better – who knows what prestigious gavel Republicans might tempt him with? But it would be fool’s gold, because the question heading into next year’s elections seems to be how many additional Senate seats Democrats will pick up – not which party will control the chamber.

Four Republican incumbents are already prime Democratic targets, with several other seats (Ted Stevens’, for instance, and a probable opening in Virginia) in Democrats’ crosshairs as well. So Mr. Lieberman could swing the Senate to the G.O.P. and grab his committee prize, but he’d have to give it up in January 2009, and if the Democratic wave is big enough in ’08, the G.O.P. could be shut out of power for years. Indeed, if he values his chairman’s gavel, Mr. Lieberman might want to consider tempering his castigations of Democrats.

And beyond the issue of power within the Senate, Mr. Lieberman’s lapsed Democrat status contributes mightily to Mr. Lieberman’s ability to sell himself to the country as an anguished moderate – and not someone whose foreign policy views have moved him far out of the mainstream and into a narrow neocon pocket. Right now, Mr. Lieberman is a novelty act – the Democrat who vilifies his own kind. He’s like Zell Miller at the 2004 G.O.P. convention. But would old Zell’s speech have raised so much as an eyebrow if he’d had an “R” next to his name?

Except for about 18 months in 2001 and 2002, Democrats in the Senate were a frustrated minority for a dozen years until last year’s elections, when they picked up six seats to claim their 51-49 majority. Their desire to preserve that hard-won status is understandable, and that has meant biting their tongues when Holy Joe opens his mouth.

But what are they really getting for all their grief? Unlike the House, where a simple majority can make all the difference in the world, the Senate is the domain of individual privileges and prerogatives and super-majority votes. The simple act of forcing a vote on any consequential Iraq legislation requires 60 votes – so the difference between 51 and 50 almost doesn’t matter. When it comes to Iraq, the only power the Democrats’ narrow majority affords them is the right to force votes on whether there should be votes. Sure, it’s nice to get Republicans on the record, but is the overall outcome of any of this different than it would be if the G.O.P. held a one-seat majority?

Waving goodbye to Mr. Lieberman might neutralize him once and for all, transforming him finally into just another stay-the-course voice on the G.O.P. side. With the House still in Democratic hands, there would still be pressure on Republican senators to break with the White House on Iraq – and consequences for them at the ballot box next year if they don’t. That’s not radically different from right now, when the only hope of a congressionally-instigated end to the war rests in the hands of Republicans willing to break ranks.

No matter what, Democrats will be the majority party in the U.S. Senate come January 2009, one that won’t be at the mercy of Joe Lieberman. So why not get a head start now?

[Ed. note: This morning, we inadvertently posted an old column by Steve Kornacki in this space. Sorry for the confusion.]

Lieberman’s Losing Bid for Influence