Back in the Fold: The Irresistible Joe Lieberman

Here’s a prediction that, very understandably, won’t go over well with liberals: Joe Lieberman will seek reelection to the Senate in 2012 as a Democrat – and he’ll probably win.

Granted, we are not right now anywhere near the point at which all of the forces required for this to happen will congeal, but the events of the last few months suggest a clear trajectory toward rapprochement in Lieberman’s relationship with Democrats in Washington and in Connecticut.

Consider how dramatically the situation has changed in just the last few months. Back in July and August, it was a foregone conclusion that, one way or another, Lieberman’s days as a committee chairman and a member of the Senate Democratic Caucus would end with the 2008 campaign.

One scenario had John McCain naming him as his running mate, which would have severed Lieberman’s frayed ties with the Democratic Party instantly and permanently. Or, if McCain picked another running mate but still won, there’d be a prominent place for Lieberman – secretary of defense, maybe? – in the new Republican administration. And even if neither of those scenarios played out, surely, the thinking went, there’d be no way that Senate Democrats would welcome Lieberman back to their fold after he’d spent the year boosting McCain, blasting Barack Obama and even speaking at the Republican National Convention.

But here we are, only a few months later, and Senate Democrats, by a vote of 42 to 13, have done just that, reissuing to Lieberman the gavel for the influential Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, a development most remarkable for how unremarkable it ended up being. After McCain’s effort to sell his party on Lieberman as a VP candidate failed in August, Lieberman changed course, tempering his attacks on Obama, well aware that he’d probably be back in the Senate after the election and could ill-afford to burn any more bridges with the ruling Democrats.

The strategy worked. With a few exceptions, Senate Democrats rallied around Lieberman as his fate was decided these past two weeks. So, for that matter, did Obama, who made clear his preference that Lieberman not receive any serious punishment for straying. Their rationale was understandable: Lieberman votes with Democrats on just about every domestic issue. Why, with the party about to control both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time in 14 years, waste time trying to settle a score from the middle of this decade? Plus, many of Lieberman’s Democratic colleagues still like him personally.

The stage is now set for Lieberman to return to the role he enjoyed before Democrats turned on him in 2006 – the mostly loyal Democrat who is willing to stray occasionally on cultural and foreign policy issues.

The main reason for this is that Obama, and not George W. Bush, will be the president for the next four years. Lieberman’s differences with his Democratic colleagues, and the party’s grass roots, were exposed earlier this decade through his early and enduring support for the Iraq war. As one Democrat after another began calling for a way out, Lieberman found himself increasingly isolated, spouting Bush administration talking points that enraged Democratic activists and set the stage for Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to him in 2006. Lamont beat Lieberman by four points in that primary, with 61 percent of voters saying that Iraq had been “very important” to their decision. Without Bush and his war of choice, there never would have been a Lamont, a Lieberman third party bid, or even a Lieberman endorsement of McCain.

Now, Iraq is receding as a major issue. Obama and the Iraqi government agree that most U.S. forces should be out of the country within his first two years as president. Arguments within the U.S. are fading to irrelevance. Just as significantly, with Obama in office, the odds of another Iraq-like military engagement – with, say, Iran – will be dramatically lower than they have been under Bush or would have been under McCain. It’s very likely, then, that international affairs will not drive a giant wedge between Lieberman and the Democratic Party over the next four years.

Without that wedge, there’s no reason Lieberman can’t slowly reestablish himself as a bankable Democratic vote in the Senate. On health care, the environment, energy policy and numerous other domestic issues, Lieberman has as much common ground with Obama as any Democrat in the Senate. And, by encouraging Senate Democrats not to expel him, Obama has extended a meaningful olive branch to Lieberman. We share the same domestic priorities and values, the president-elect essentially said, so let’s forget about the campaign and work together. There’s no reason now to believe that Lieberman won’t reciprocate.

There also won’t be any temptation for Lieberman to align himself so publicly with a Republican the way he just did with McCain, who has run his last national race. McCain is the rare Republican with whom Lieberman shares more than just a foreign policy vision; the two are very close personally and have broad agreement on several key domestic issues. The Republicans who will emerge as national leaders in the wake of McCain’s failure, however, are cut from a different cloth. Lieberman won’t be tempted to go to bat for any of them.

It’s not hard to see where this will lead. Lieberman’s support for McCain and Iraq will never be forgotten by many on the left, no matter how loyal he becomes over the next few years. But Lieberman doesn’t face reelection until 2012. If memories of what he did in 2006, 2007 and 2008 are all that Lieberman’s antagonists can offer, it will be tough for an anti-Lieberman movement to attain critical mass four years from now.

Already, Connecticut’s state Democratic chairwoman, Nancy DiNardo, has told the Hartford Courant that a movement to oust Lieberman from the state party seems to be dead. “We need to move forward,” she said this week. “There are far more important things that we need to be focusing on.”

If that’s what she’s saying now, what will DiNardo’s attitude be come 2012 after Lieberman spends the next four years working with and supporting the Obama administration – and if there’s no war to drive him into Republican arms?

It remains to be seen whether Lieberman will even want to seek a fifth term in ’12, when he’ll be 70 years old. And he might just decide that another independent campaign is his best option. (Why even risk a primary fight?)

But the door seems wide open for a full-fledged return to the Democratic Party and a campaign for reelection under the party’s banner in ’12. Sure, he’d face an opponent from the left; that’s a given. But just remember how close he came to winning the Democratic primary in ’06, even with the war raging and emotions raw. The environment, and Lieberman’s relationship to the Democratic Party, should be much different in ’12.

Not every Democrat will get over Lieberman’s apostasies these next four years. But if he plays his cards right, enough will.

Back in the Fold: The Irresistible Joe Lieberman