When the Democrats Don't Need Joe Lieberman Anymore

Ordinarily, the “most endangered incumbent” label applies to an office holder who is standing for reelection. In 2008, however, the most endangered member of the U.S. Senate’s Democratic Caucus won’t be on any ballots. It’s Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman just won his fourth six-year term in 2006, but no member of the Senate majority – with the possible exception of Mary Landrieu, the lone Democratic senator facing a tricky reelection fight this year – stands to lose more this November than Connecticut’s junior senator.

Since the ’06 elections, Lieberman’s supposed role as the Senate’s ultimate power broker has been touted endlessly. Rejected by the party that once nominated him for vice president in the August ’06 primary, he nonetheless won reelection in the fall as a self-described “independent Democrat,” promising to caucus with Democrats and to side with them for organizing purposes in the Senate.

When Election Day produced a 49-49-2 split, Lieberman kept his word, joining fellow independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont (whose loyalty to Democrats on this matter was a foregone conclusion) to swing the chamber to Democratic control. Accordingly, Lieberman was handed the gavel of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Without Joe Lieberman, we have heard over and over, the Democrats would lose the Senate.

For 18 months now, Lieberman has giddily rubbed this status in his colleagues’ faces, as if he’s still trying to make them pay for not doing enough for him in his ’06 campaign (even though numerous Congressional Democrats trekked to Connecticut to support him in the primary that year).

Technically, they’ve been free to boot him at any time without consequence; the organizing resolution under which this Senate term was established provides no mechanism for the Republicans to claim control of the chamber even if Lieberman were to join up with them. (The situation was not the same in 2001, when a differently worded organizing resolution handed Democrats day-to-day Senate control when Jim Jeffords left the G.O.P.)

But from a practical standpoint, this technicality probably wouldn’t survive an actual Lieberman defection to the G.O.P. With Lieberman on their side, Republicans would pull into a 50-50 tie. If the Democrats then refused to negotiate a new power-sharing agreement, they would hand the G.O.P. a powerful weapon with which to paint the Democrats as unfair and anti-democratic in the court of public opinion. To middle-of-the-road voters, Lieberman could become a sympathetic figure.

So Democrats have chosen to abide Lieberman’s increasingly shrill apostasies, knowing that confronting him during this Congress might create even bigger headaches for them. Plus, no one is certain of the exact parameters of the agreement the majority leader, Harry Reid, struck with Lieberman after the ’06 elections. Did Reid, anxious to secure a Democratic majority, pledge that – no matter what – Lieberman would be permitted to retain his chairmanship and his place in the caucus? This may also be a matter of one senator keeping his word to another, something fundamental to the conduct of business in the Senate.

Still, it’s got to be killing the Democrats. Sure, on plenty of issues, he still votes with them. And his role in crafting climate-change legislation stirs fond memories of the man who was on the party’s national ticket just eight years ago. But on the biggest issues of the day – the Iraq war and the presidential race – Lieberman not only sides with the G.O.P., he echoes some of their harshest attacks.

On a conservative radio show not long ago, Lieberman laughed and said, “That’s a good question,” when he was asked whether Barack Obama is a Marxist. When it comes to the war, Lieberman told Fox News that Obama “doesn’t come to this debate with a lot of credibility.” He regularly assaults Obama’s foreign policy views, and – à la Zell Miller – is set to deliver a high-profile speech at this summer’s Republican convention. He’s even taken to using the “Democrat Party” epithet that some on the right so enjoy slipping into casual conversation.

What’s worse, Lieberman does this all with more credibility than the average McCain campaign surrogate. To independent voters, he speaks as someone whose support of McCain is the extraordinary result of the Democratic Party’s turn to extremism.

Lieberman will only ratchet up his rhetoric as the general-election campaign progresses – and certainly after he’s greeted with what will undoubtedly be an emboldening hero’s welcome at the G.O.P. convention in Minneapolis. If McCain were to win, Lieberman would probably be able to name his job in the new administration. And while the possibility is remote, it’s not entirely unthinkable that McCain might yet ask him to join his ticket.

But if this election doesn’t produce a President McCain, there will be no White House to rescue Lieberman from the Senate. And unlike two years ago, Democrats will have no need for Senator Lieberman, because after this election, they will be in better shape in the Senate than at any time since 1994, when they controlled 56 seats.

Right now, Democrats are clearly – if not overwhelmingly – favored to pick up Republican-held open seats in Virginia and New Mexico and strongly positioned in Colorado. The party is also in good position to defeat a G.O.P. incumbent in New Hampshire and could also threaten Republican incumbents in Minnesota, Maine, Oregon, North Carolina, Alaska and even Mississippi. Among Democratic incumbents, only Landrieu seems to be in any trouble. (Frank Lautenberg in New Jersey is theoretically vulnerable – but between the national climate, political trends in New Jersey, and the state of the N.J. G.O.P. and the blandness of its candidate, there’s no reason to think that he won’t ultimately secure the eight-or-so-point margin that has become standard for New Jersey Democrats.)

In other words, Senate Democrats will almost certainly number well over 50 – and maybe close to 60 – when this election is over. If they are at 59, there may be some temptation to cut a deal with Lieberman, simply to have his vote on filibusters (where 60 votes will cut off debate), but Lieberman’s loyalty on filibusters surely wouldn’t extend to the Iraq war, so there’d be little point to that.

On the morning of Nov. 5, it seems, Democrats will be free to say to Lieberman what they’ve wanted to for two years now: Take a hike. When the Democrats Don't Need Joe Lieberman Anymore