My Thoughts on Joe Lieberman

Editor’s Note 1: I was planning on having at least two Election 2008 entries done before Election Day.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.  I’ll be working on them over the next couple of months and I’ll post them when they are completed.


Editor’s Note 2: The following was largely written in the evening of November 17, before the conclusion of the issue at hand.  I’ll post an update to discuss that conclusion.


I’ll post my entry on the general election soon, but I wanted to comment on the fate of Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) before the Democratic caucus met on November 18 to make their decision as to whether he should lose his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.


First of all, let me say that I do not think Lieberman should be outright expelled from the caucus.  Who he caucuses with is his own decision.  The only circumstances in which I think he should be expelled is if he somehow betrays the confidence of the caucus or disobeys a direct order from the Democratic leadership.


Second of all, in the sense that I “like” (i.e. support) politicians, I do not like Lieberman at all.  I strongly opposed his presidential run in 2004, his renomination for U.S. Senate in 2006, and his election to the Senate in 2006, and (retroactively) his selection as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000, and his election and reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1988, 1994 and 2000 (most especially 1988 when he ran as the conservative opponent to liberal Senator Lowell Weicker).  I fervently hope that he either retires or is defeated for reelection in 2012 and I eagerly look forward to the end of his political career.  Indeed, I completely oppose his very existence in U.S. politics, perhaps more so than any other politician, even conservative Republicans.  At least they aren’t an ulcer gnawing away at the innards of the Democratic Party.


Third of all, having said that there are a few areas in which Lieberman has consistently been on the liberal side of the fight, for which he deserves credit.  Most social issues (though he has been very annoying at times on the issues of contraception availability and restrictions on video games).  The environment.  And, for which he deserves the most credit, homeland security.  One of the things I hate Lieberman the most for is how he’s consistently echoed and promoted Republican rhetoric calling for shrinking government.  Yet it was Lieberman who spearheaded and pushed for greater federal involvement in homeland security, starting with the Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.  And for that I applaud him.  The DHS and the issue of homeland security in general have long been Lieberman’s babies and for that he was rewarded, I think appropriately, with the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee.


Fourth of all, I’m hesitant to embrace the idea of punishing someone because he endorsed the Republican candidate for President (as well as at least one, if not two, Republican candidates for U.S. Senate), especially if that punishment comes in the form of a committee chairmanship that isn’t really related to who he supported in the presidential race.  Let me be clear that this is not because I think Lieberman endorsing Senator John McCain is a terrific thing.  But in certain cases Senators should have the leeway to jump ship and endorse the other party’s candidate.


Let me put this in perspective: what if Lieberman were the Democratic presidential nominee?  The thought is enough to make me sick, and I would surely not support him as the nominee either as a Senator or a private citizen, or as anything else.  I doubt I’d vote for the Republican nominee in such a situation, but I might if I felt he or she were more liberal and better on the issues (for example, former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, my own Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even to some extent Senator Arlen Specter).  I’m sure many if not most of my fellow Democrats feel the same way.  So would we all be stripped of our chairmanships?


What I’m getting at is that punishing people for supporting the other side sets a bad precedent in situations where we Democrats nominate undesirable or odious people.  I can understand wanting to have the freedom to endorse whomever you want without having to worry about committee chairmanships.  After all, even though I’m sure Lieberman was looking for attention and wanted to show off his “independence”, it seems clear that at least part of the reason for him supporting McCain over Senator Barack Obama was that he really felt McCain was the better choice.  In that same sense, if the presidential race was a match between Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’d probably support Schwarzenegger (though I’d probably look at minor party candidates first).


The same goes for the anti-Obama rhetoric that Lieberman used during the campaign, which for the most part were the same talking points used by the McCain campaign.  The only thing that Lieberman should be held responsible for is repeating any lies or outright distortions used by the McCain campaign – though it’s not clear that removing him as committee chairman is the appropriate response.


I will say, however, that I do support removing people from committee chairmanships if they’re bad chairmen, or otherwise impede the progress of the Democratic leadership or the liberal agenda that I support (if the two are not the same).  For example, I fully supported incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to replace the incalcitrant moderate Rep. Jane Harman with the more liberal Rep. Silvestre Reyes in December 2006.  Has Lieberman’s performance as Homeland Security chairman been sufficiently bad to warrant his removal?  According to this analysis, yes: Lieberman’s faults include an unwillingness to properly conduct oversight.  While Congressional oversight might become less important with the Obama administration, it’s still a critical function that should be well served.  Moreover, I find plausible the argument that, if he goes unchecked, Lieberman would hinder the agendas of the Obama administration and the more liberal Democratic caucus leadership – though Lieberman should be more-or-less aligned with them on the issues of homeland security and government structuring, I wouldn’t be surprised to find him continuing to snub the Democratic Party, if for no other reasons than to continue to gratify himself and feed his egotistical image as an “independent” (yes I’m serious).


So, I support Lieberman’s (or anyone else’s) removal as chairman committee if it is determined that he cannot perform his duties adequately.  On the other hand, I don’t know if that determination has been made, and I don’t agree with the idea of punishing him solely for his support for the other side, since it may become necessary someday for good Democrats to do the same if our party fields a bad nominee.  In other words, I’m torn.  I’ll probably see a good and a bad in whatever decision the caucus ultimately makes.


Let me add that if Lieberman is punished in any way, the Democratic caucus should make very clear what exactly they are punishing Lieberman for.  Don’t give him a sentence without a charge.  The caucus should set clear signals about what happens to renegade Senators in the event that something like this happens again in the future.  In the same vein, in the event that Lieberman is stripped of his committee chairmanship, the caucus leadership should issue a clear statement as to the reasons for that decision.

NOVEMBER 23 2008 UPDATE: So Lieberman, as expected, kept his Homeland Security chairmanship, getting off with a mild rebuke that “took away” (though Lieberman disputes that) his subcommittee chairmanship in Environment and Public Works and condemned his anti-Obama remarks.  And the left-wing blogosphere base is in a tizzy.  It’s not Lieberman’s retention I mind so much as the Democratic leadership’s perpetual snubbing of the netroots.  It’s almost as if they delight in making us mad since we’re such radical leftists so as to demand such outrageously crazy things like withdrawing from Iraq, universal health care, alternative energy, fully-funded education, etc.  By spurning our wishes they can make themselves seem moderate, respectable and bipartisan by comparison.  You know, like what Lieberman did to them.


But we need Lieberman’s vote to get to 60 in the Senate!


I HATE this line of reasoning.  Let’s be clear on one thing, people: 60 votes to end a filibuster is not something you can lock in like you can with 51.  You have to get those 60 votes on each vote that comes up.  And while we might expect a unified Democratic caucus and/or a unified Republican caucus on some votes, most votes we don’t see that kind of unanimous unity.  There are going to be quite a few times when Republican moderates (Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, maybe Arlen Specter) are going to defect to our side and give us what we need to get to 60.  Conversely, quite a few Democrats have betrayed us on cloture votes in the past – annoying moderates like Ken Salazar, Tom Carper, and… Joe Lieberman.


That’s right – Joe Lieberman was already an unreliable vote for cloture several times in the past, even back when he was a Democrat in (relatively) good standing.  Votes on not just foreign policy but also some domestic issues like bankruptcy “reform”.  So what makes us think that he’ll always line up with us, even if we have 60?  Not to mention that getting to 60 will be hard even with Lieberman, as there will always be Democrats who vote with the other side… Democrats like Lieberman!  I wouldn’t put it past the super-pretentious Lieberman to vote with the Republicans on key issues to make himself look “independent” and “bipartisan”.


But punishing Lieberman would have made him a lost vote for sure.


That may be, though I wonder if Lieberman could really bring himself to suddenly vote with the other side on issues like abortion or the environment, where he’s actually been a fairly decent Democrat for years.  So the choice is, do we punish Lieberman, send a strong signal and lose his vote for sure, or do we let him go, send a weak signal and get his vote… maybe?  While I can understand why people would prefer the second option, I would point out that Lieberman was already a somewhat unreliable vote to begin with.


So what are the consequences of letting him go?  I mean, doesn’t he “owe” us now?


The problem I see with letting Lieberman off is twofold and related: 1) He’s still the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Reform.  As I pointed out earlier in this entry, he sucks at the job.  This problem is compounded by the loss of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA-30) as chairman of the equivalent House committee, and his impending replacement by the inept Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY-10) who will probably be an even worse chairman than Lieberman.  So now we have both vitally important committees headed by weak chairmen.  Moreover, Lieberman may have incentive to hamper the Democratic agenda, either by not doing anything or by challenging or blocking the agenda.  Would he have cause to do this?  Yes, because he’s Lieberman and he has only one agenda he cares about – his own.  Lieberman has demonstrated this on several occasions in the past and there’s simply no reason to trust him now.  Which brings me to point number two.


2) There’s almost no way to hold him accountable.  A key Lieberman defender, the also dismayingly moderate Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), gamely tried to argue that if Lieberman steps over the line at any point in the next Congressional session, the Democrats can remove him.  Sounds good – too bad it’s not true.  Removing him would require a new organizing resolution which would be subject to a filibuster.  Now you could argue that the Republicans wouldn’t care enough to expend political capital on filibustering over a dispute within the Democratic Party.  But you could also see that Republicans have incentives in that 1) Whatever wrongful things Lieberman is doing probably benefit them 2) It’s a great chance to stick their finger in the Democratic caucus’s eye.  Plus, given the outcome of this latest Lieberman vote I wouldn’t be surprised if half the Democratic caucus still sides with giving Lieberman yet another break.


So the next chance to punish Lieberman would be in the new organizing resolution in January 2011.  That could be up to two years after whatever Lieberman did, and Lieberman will be chairman the whole time.  That’s two years that Lieberman could obstruct the Democratic/Obama agenda.  That kind of obstruction may not only deny us from vital government oversight and homeland security investment efforts, but who knows, it may contribute to a bad first two years that will cost us seats in the Senate in the 2010 elections, at which point it’ll be even harder to remove Lieberman.  And given how resistant the Senate Democrats are to any idea of punishing Lieberman, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lieberman obstructs the Obama agenda and has extramarital sex with every Senator’s spouse (yes, even the men) and they still vote to let him off after all that for 2011.


But doesn’t Lieberman “owe” us “big time” now?  Well, as I’ve said there’s almost no way to hold him accountable until 2011, and probably not even then.  Lieberman most likely knows that.  So the only way he “owes” us is through the kindness of his heart.  And let me ask you this: would you trust Lieberman to support you, potentially over himself, through the kindness of his “good heart”?  Would you?