To the surprise of few on Capitol Hill — and, surely, to the disappointment of many beyond the beltway — Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman will retain his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Homeland Security Committee and his place in the Democratic Caucus.
Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president who angered his fellow partisans first by embracing neo-conservative foreign policies and then by backing Republican John McCain for the presidency, had been targeted for punishment by grassroots Democrats who were furious with his positions and actions.
But the message of Lieberman’s critics was never coherent — it ranged from calls for expelling the independent senator from the caucus to stripping him of committee assignments to demanding an apology — and it never achieved the sort of critical mass that might have influenced Democratic senators to demand a measure of accountability from one of their own.
Against the call for accountability was a political argument, advanced by allies of President-elect Barack Obama and a number of Lieberman’s Senate colleagues, that taking too harsh a stance toward the senator from Connecticut might make him the first political “martyr” of an era in which Democrats are trying to send bipartisan “one-nation” messages.
So Lieberman took a slap on the wrist: giving up the chairmanship of a subcommittee dealing with climate change and accepting a formal if tepid condemnation from the caucus for some of his more over-the-top statements on McCain’s behalf — especially his absurd claim that Obama’s vote for setting a timeline for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq was an attack on the troops.
In return, the caucus voted 42-13 to let Lieberman remain in the caucus and enjoy the primary perk of that membership: the Homeland Security chairmanship.
Ultimately, the result was a disappointing one, as it left Lieberman in charge of a committee where he had been a problematic player while removing him from the chairmanship of the climate-change subcommittee on which he has tended to take positions that are far more in line with those of mainstream Democrats.
Could the fight have ended differently? Perhaps, but it would have required an inside-outside strategy where Lieberman’s critics in the caucus (Vermonters Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Californian Barbara Boxer and Iowan Tom Harkin, among others) worked with netroots and grassroots activists to develop a clear ask. That ask — probably the surrender of Lieberman’s committee chairmanship in return for allowing him to retain subcommittee chairmanships he values and that are significant for Connecticut — was telegraphed in a statement last week by Sanders.
But, by then, Lieberman had already been “saved” by Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
What remains is the question of whether Lieberman will take his caucus membership seriously. Senate Democrats will need his vote when Republicans seek to stall action on policy initiatives and confirmations of Obama appointees. If he provides it, that will be the end of the story of his relationship with the caucus — though not with the voters of Connecticut, who polling suggests are souring on their renegade senator.
If, on the other hand, Lieberman sides with the Republicans to undermine the party’s agenda and the Obama presidency he worked so hard to prevent, then the caucus can and should be prepared to censure the Connecticut senator by rescinding the pass that he was given on Tuesday.
And what are the rest of us left with? For now, there are few options, except perhaps to Laugh at Lieberman.