by Jeff Fecke • 11/20/08 • Like most Democrats, I was gleeful after the Dems took a big lead in the Senate. Sure, part of that was about getting our agenda pushed through, but mostly I was happy because it meant that defenestrated Sen. Joe Lieberman, Joe-Conn., would soon be out of a job. His gavel would be stripped, his epaulettes ripped from his shoulders, and he’d be sent out of the Democratic caucus into the cold twilight of the GOP caucus, where he’d have to put up with idiots like Tom Coburn. It would be glorious.
But a funny thing happened to Holy Joe: he got his butt saved by former Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who happens to be the President-Elect that Lieberman spent all summer campaigning against. Obama suggested quietly to the Democratic caucus that they not throw Joe to the wolves, and the Democrats obliged, letting Joe keep his committee chairmanship, the removal of which, Lieberman said, would force him from the caucus.
And so you might expect me to be a bit disappointed. But I’m not. Because I think, on careful reflection, that Obama did precisely the right thing — and the thing that will cause Lieberman the most consternation. He saved him.
Yes, Obama will win plaudits for being bipartisan and moderate and sensible and whatnot, and the usual suspects will take the opportunity to claim the left is dead. But before you despair, think about what would have happened had Lieberman been stripped of his chairmanship and forced from the caucus. We like to say that Lieberman would then become just another Republican, but we know better: Lieberman would still have been a media darling, the Democrat Too Moderate to Stay a Democrat. Throughout the next four years, Lieberman would have been invited on Fox and CNN to gravely intone as to why his ejection from power was proof that the Democrats had gone too far. I can hear him saying, “I didn’t leave the party — the party left me” ad infinitum, and to Joe and Jane Bagadonutz, it might even sound somewhat accurate.
Far from punishing Lieberman, he would have been liberated to be the complete douchebag that we know him to be. And make no mistake — he would have been more in demand than ever.
But that’s not what’s going to happen now. Now, Lieberman is in the Democratic caucus, but only because Obama and the Democrats were forgiving of his trespasses. From Obama to Reid, the message today is, “Okay, Joe’s a douchebag, but we’re going to let bygones be bygones.” Yes, Joe gets to keep the gavel — but with the gavel comes some big strings. Joe’s not going to be able to go on Fox and declare that Obama’s destroying the country, nor is he going to be able to vote against cloture on Obama’s first SCOTUS nominee, not without risking a public shellacking. If Lieberman strays off the reservation, the Democrats can cut him off — and do so more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, explaining that they tried to work with Lieberman, but he made the decision for them. Instead of being a thorn in the side of the Democrats, the man most likely to work against them, and a guy who would bet everything on a GOP revival in 2012 (for he has no real shot at re-election), Lieberman has become a Democrat with every incentive to toe the party line.
Is it the most viscerally satisfying solution? No, it isn’t. But if you’re looking at the next four years, it’s probably the smartest poltical move for the Democrats. Even if we’re stuck at 58 or 59 votes in the Senate (and I think that’s probably where we are; we might win Minnesota or Georgia, but the odds of winning both are slim), Lieberman’s presence in the caucus means we only have to snag one or two Republicans to break a filibuster, which is easier than three or four. And Lieberman’s presence in the caucus makes that easier, because Reid can squeeze Holy Joe to go out and try to win over Lindsey Graham or John McCain on this global warming bill or that torture bill.
In short, Lieberman will be a good soldier. If not, he’ll be forced out — but after proving once and for all that he can’t be trusted. And in the meantime, he’ll become just another Democratic senator, one whose time on the talk shows will be curtailed, who can’t lay into Obama without looking like an ungrateful wretch. It’s not viscerally satisfying, but if you believe in politics as a means to an end, it’s for the best.