On Tuesday, Democratic Senators will decide the political fate of Joe Lieberman. For the past several years, Lieberman has been a persistent thorn in their side--a relentless critic of Democratic attempts to end the war in Iraq and a no-less-vocal advocate of President Bush’s surge strategy. Relations have grown considerably worse since he endorsed John McCain for President last December and delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention this fall. Now that the Democrats have picked up at least six additional seats in the Senate, liberal activists are calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to strip Lieberman of his chairmanship over the Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee, revoke his seniority, and possibly evict him from the Democratic caucus altogether. But to do so would send the wrong message to the country, needlessly divide the Democratic Party, and betray the principles Barack Obama stressed so eloquently in his campaign.
To his credit, Obama has sent signals that he wants Lieberman to stay in the caucus, and perhaps even as chair of the committee. "We don't hold any grudges," Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter emailed Talking Points Memo's Greg Sargent on Monday. And, indeed, allowing Lieberman to stay--however obnoxious liberals might have found his dissidence--wouldn’t just be a sign of non-partisan, post-election magnanimity; it'd also be in the long-term political interests of Obama and his fellow Democrats. Because if the Democratic Party wants to maintain control of Congress and the White House, it will have to reconcile its liberal and moderate wings. Punishing Lieberman could complicate these efforts.
First, just in terms of policy, those calling for the axe ignore that Lieberman has been a reliable Democrat. Last week, Reid said that “Lieberman is not some right wing nut case,” and, in fact, Lieberman has secured a higher party loyalty voting record than 14 of his Democratic colleagues. He’s also been a fine chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. He sponsored the legislation that first created the department, and under his leadership, the committee has achieved some legitimate successes: Lieberman helped alter the formula by which homeland security funding is dispersed so that the localities most at risk receive more aid, and he crafted legislation to mandate the inspection of all air and sea cargo within three years. He has also sponsored good, progressive legislation, like a bill extending domestic partner benefits to gay federal employees.
Yes, Lieberman’s frequent and vocal complaints about the Democratic Party have irked his colleagues. But, in terms of policy, has he really damaged liberal aims more than the other Democratic congressmen and Senators who have not toed the party leadership’s line? Senator Robert Byrd, for instance, has been one of the coal industry’s greatest friends in Congress, angering environmentalists for decades with his attempts to block measures that would reduce pollution. As Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he has been one of the most powerful men in the Senate, and it’s not unreasonable to say that his position on the issue over the years has done more harm to the progressive cause writ large than Lieberman has.
Moreover, a political party that seeks to represent a broad swathe of the country should be able to accommodate someone (even a committee chairman) who holds slightly divergent views from the congressional leadership. For an example of what happens when a political party imposes ideological purity tests, Democrats need only cast their gaze across the aisle. The GOP is currently enmeshed in a civil war, where the conservative wing has all but destroyed the party’s moderate faction. Starting in 1994 and continuing on through today, Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay wouldn’t allow for disagreement within the caucus, and the result has been the party’s intellectual breakdown. Moderate Republicans like Chris Shays no longer exist, and the party is given to sensational acts of overreach, the congressional witch hunt over Bill Clinton’s sex life and the federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case being two of the most notorious examples.
There’s also the strategic case for keeping Lieberman on: Just because the Republican brand has lost some its luster doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party now has the leverage to excommunicate its centrists. For the past 40 years, the Democratic Party has been most successful when it has governed from the center--when it has governed at all. Its 2006 congressional takeover, engineered by incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, wouldn’t have happened if the party didn’t run centrist and conservative Democrats in traditionally red states. Were the Democrats to punish their former vice presidential nominee, it could weaken the position of these legislators by making the party seem too liberal and intolerant of moderates. Leaving Lieberman alone would allow the Democrats to one-up the GOP by showing that they're the ones who believe in a big tent philosophy, as opposed to the small-minded, petty Republicans.
Pointedly, not a single Democratic senator has publicly called for stripping Lieberman of his committee chairmanship or expelling him from their caucus. (On the contrary, some are rallying to his defense.) The people most interested in penalizing Lieberman are a small but noisy group of liberal bloggers and activists, the same people who were plumping over two years ago to eject him from the Democratic Party for his supposed heresies. Earlier this year, far left activist Robert Greenwald started the website Liebermanmustgo.com, which hosts a petition demanding the revocation of Lieberman’s seniority. The Daily Kos is urging its readership to call Democratic Senators and demand that they do the same. Joe Klein, who refers to the “flagrantly dreadful” Lieberman, writes that allowing him to keep his committee chairmanship but revoking his seniority is “far more than Lieberman deserves,” while Josh Marshall declares that offer “simply unacceptable.” The popular liberal blogger Jane Hamsher, who once doctored a photo to portray Lieberman in black face, bizarrely argues that Democrats must strip Lieberman of his committee chairmanship because he’ll “no doubt” use it to investigate the Obama administration. If Democrats follow the cues of this crowd, then the party will lose credibility among the moderate majority of the American electorate.
From his reversal on FISA and selection of Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff to the news that he’s unlikely to overhaul Bush administration national security policies, Obama seems to understand that kowtowing to his party’s left flank is not what the American people expected when they elected him president. Though it may be tempting to dump Lieberman now that he needs the Democrats more than they need him, doing so wouldn’t put an end to “the partisanship and pettiness and immaturity” that Obama criticized in his victory speech last week. It would instead suggest that Democrats haven’t learned a thing about what’s currently rending the GOP apart.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.