What Does Lieberman Want?

Senator Joseph Lieberman's defeat in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary and subsequent general election victory as an "Independent Democrat" created one of the more delicate political balances in U.S. history. With Lieberman (and the socialist Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont) in their caucus, Senate Democrats hold a 51-49 margin in the Senate, giving them all the power (agenda setting, committee majorities, subpoena power, etc.) that goes with majority status. Keeping Lieberman in the caucus has thus been essential to his Democratic colleagues, putting Lieberman in a position with potentially enormous power. One could imagine a cartoonish situation where Lieberman snaps his fingers and announces that he is bored, leading to frantic efforts by the party leadership to find ways to please his fickle tastes.

Surprisingly, nothing even mildly in that direction has happened. Lieberman requested and received the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is hardly a plum position in terms of profile or portfolio. His most public efforts, of course, have been in aggressively supporting the Bush administration's Iraq policy and the candidacy of Republican Senator John McCain, earning him the enmity of many Democrats both inside and outside the Senate. Even so, this is hardly out of character for Lieberman, who won his first term in the Senate by running a hard right campaign against liberal Republican Lowell Weicker and whose selection as Al Gore's running mate in 2000 was largely driven by Lieberman's highly public criticism of Bill Clinton as well as his more general reputation as a public moralist (read: scold).

In other words, Lieberman's new status has led him a bit further afield, but not anywhere near the extremes toward which his unique position might have allowed him to push. This is even more surprising when one considers that Lieberman will almost certainly be exiled come January 2009. Unless the Democrats do much worse than expected, leaving them near the current 50/50 split, or much better, putting them near a 60/40 veto-proof majority, Lieberman will almost certainly be punished for his transgressions to date. While every seat is important, it is easy to imagine the Democrats with, say, a 54-44-2 split after the election. A caucus with 55 members -- most of whom are pretty angry about Lieberman's support for McCain -- could be expected to decide that they do not really need a 56th member. They might even be expected to make an ugly public example of Lieberman as he is ousted.

It was thus interesting to see an article in Monday's NYT that offered extensive quotations and analysis of a recent interview with Lieberman. The genuine surprise coming out the article, for me, is that Lieberman just doesn't seem to have an agenda. (He is, however, willing to be utterly disingenuous. "When asked if he received 'talking points' from the McCain campaign or the Republican National Committee, Mr. Lieberman replied, 'I usually don’t.'") He simply seems to be a stubborn guy who may or may not be settling a few small scores but who gives no hint that he is taking advantage of his position -- nor does he show any awareness that his position is so very temporary. In short, he offers no vision and no indication of even having a purpose, large or small, in his career.

During the 2006 mid-term election campaign, Michael Dorf wrote a column on FindLaw about Lieberman, noting that "[a]t each crucial moment in his Senate career, Lieberman has made plain that the cause about which he cares most deeply is Joe Lieberman." Mike concluded by noting that "I can't shake the suspicion that behind Lieberman's disarming wit lies the soul of an opportunist." It is interesting that, in the two year's following Mike's comments, Lieberman has shown himself to be such a small-time opportunist. While the Senator should be condemned for his transgressions, we might count our blessings that he is willing to settle for what amounts to little more than self-indulgence.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan