Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Joe Lieberman's titillation routine

Here we go again, with more breathless reporting on Joe Lieberman’s perpetual tease.

Not since Paris Hilton has there been a media figure who draws more attention for doing nothing. Barely a week passes without Lieberman flashing a little thigh (politically speaking), and hinting (in sorrow, of course) that if his Senate Democratic colleagues fail to bend to his will and support the Republican president’s demonstrably ruinous mission in Iraq, he might just decide to retaliate by partying forevermore with the GOP. And by doing so, he would presumably shift power in the closely-divided Senate over to the Republicans (which is inaccurate, although a lot of media outlets don’t seem to know this). Yet he always qualifies the defection threat by saying that he’s probably not serious – thereby clearing the decks for the next tease cycle.

And media people keep falling for his pitch. Time magazine, in its new March 5 issue, reports on Lieberman’s GOP flirtation, then calls it “a remote possibility.” The Washington website Politico.com brought it up last week, quoting Lieberman as saying that Democratic efforts to restrict President Bush’s war funding might induce him, or maybe not, to join forces with the Bush enablers; as he put it, “I hope we don’t get to that point. That’s all I will say on it today. That would hurt.” (Note how he plays the sorrow card.)

And the perpetual tease, naturally, is ongoing grist for those in the conservative media who would love to see him defect – notably The Drudge Report, which gave ample attention to the Politico story, and Brit Hume on Fox News, who announced last week that “there are signs tonight that Senate Joe Lieberman might reconsider his decision to remain a Democrat” - a move, Hume erroneously added, that would “give control of the chamber back to the Republicans.”

Lieberman has been playing this game since last November, when he won re-election as an independent, having been spurned by Connecticut Democratic voters in a summer primary. What’s striking is that media people keep reporting his threat without challenging him to explain how he can possibly square his threat with the promises he made to the people of Connecticut in 2006. One day after he won re-election, he stated with Shermanesque certitude that he would remain a Democrat (“When I give my word, I stick to it”), and that it was a waste of time to speculate on whether he would ever change his mind (it’s “a closed issue”). On the other hand, the tease began four days later, when he showed up on Meet the Press and said, in response to a question as to whether he might switch to the GOP some day, “I’m not ruling it out, but I hope I don’t get to that point.”

So why is he constantly being rewarded with the media attention that he craves (a common senatorial character trait)? In part, it’s because of the flawed perception that he can shift power in the chamber merely by shifting his party allegiance. Politico.com said that Lieberman’s “extraordinary move…would flip control of the Senate.” Even CongressDaily, a respected non-partisan report, said the other day that Lieberman switch “would swing the Senate back to GOP control.” Yet the truth is actually far more complicated.

When the Senate organized itself last month, in the wake of the Democratic takeover, it enacted rules (which the Republicans did not contest) that basically give the Democrats control of the chamber and its committee chairmanships until January 2009 - even if the GOP somehow winds up with more seats in the interim. It’s true that the Senate went Democratic back in 2001 when Vermont’s Jim Jeffords left the GOP, but the organizing rules at the time were different. Those rules contained a “kick-out clause,” which decreed that Senate power would shift if the minority party became the majority. Yet there is no such “kick-out clause” in effect today, because the Republicans last month didn’t insist on one. If Lieberman did switch sides, the Republicans could still argue that they deserved to take control, but in all likelihood a lengthy parliamentary fight would ensue, with the Democrats defending the rules as enacted, and blocking the GOP via filibuster.

Hey, I told you that the reality was complicated. And that’s just one reason why Lieberman’s ongoing act is probably a crock. Here are a few more:

Iraq aside, he is a bad fit for the Republicans. Over the past two months, he reportedly has voted with the Democrats 90 percent of the time, a statistic that roughly mirrors his generally posture over the years. He stuck with the Senate Democrats, for instance, during passage of the minimum-wage hike – twice providing the margin of victory as Republicans sought to amend the hike. He even proposed a new tax (a “war on terror tax”), and, as we know, a tax-hiker in the GOP is about as likely as Jack Bauer keynoting an ACLU convention.

So if Lieberman actually acted on his tease, he would feel more isolated than ever. His convictions on domestic issues (“I’ll die a Democrat,” he declared last summer) would be out of sync with those of his colleagues – while his ex-colleagues would be liberated from their current impulse to indulge him.

And, more importantly, this would be a lousy time to sign on with the GOP. Lieberman, who is an instinctive political animal beneath his public sanctimony, surely understands that 2008 looms as a bad year for the Republicans. There is every indication that the Democrats could add new Senate seats, largely because swing voters are increasingly fed up with the war that Lieberman continues to promote ("we've got a totally new plan for how to succeed in Iraq"). Indeed, of the seven Senate seats thought to be most competitive next year, five (in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon) are currently held by Republicans.

The last thing that Lieberman would want is to be relegated to six long years of minority status. Remember, this is a guy who today would be a heartbeat away from the presidency, if not for hanging chads, a butterfly ballot, and a 5-4 Supreme Court. A guy like that sees himself as a player. Which is why his ongoing play for attention should be treated with the skepticism it deserves.


I wrote yesterday about the latest symptoms of Democratic incoherence and inertia on the Iraq issue. Well, this is exactly what I was talking about: splits between Senate liberals and moderates, and no debate over Iraq for two more weeks. If they keep this up, Lieberman will get his wish. In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, he urged Democrats to stay silent until the summer.