Lieberman is Early Proof of a New Era

Washington Matters

Lieberman is Early Proof of a New Era

The thundering sounds you hear  in the distance are either ice cracking as Hell freezes over or LBJ spinning so quickly in his grave that he broke the sound barrier. Senate Democrats decided not to exact real punishment on Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential candidate of 2000 turned independent turned ardent backer of GOP presidential nominee John McCain. Lieberman's apostasy was not unprecedented, but its near forgiveness may be. It clearly is not politics as usual. (Lyndon Johnson, who is regarded as one of the most masterful -- and vengeful -- majority leaders in Senate history, would have threatened vile, slow and colorful deaths but settled for burying Lieberman politically. Forever.) The grudgingly forgiving move bodes well for the prospects of tamping down the vitriol in Washington and ratcheting up the cooperation and work.

Triumphant as they were after the election, Democrats rode into town furious and determined to ride Lieberman out on a rail for his campaign treason. His loss of the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee appeared certain and his expulsion from the caucus possible. But President-elect Obama quietly made clear he would rather Lieberman be let go with a rap on the knuckles. Since it was Obama who Lieberman directly betrayed, it would have been pretty difficult for his former Senate colleagues to demand more. And if anyone had a reason to hold a grudge, it was Obama. With just a year under his belt in the Senate, the anti-war Obama endorsed and campaigned for the ardently pro-war Lieberman in his losing primary fight against a more liberal antiwar Democrat in 2006. (Lieberman plugged on as an independent and prevailed.)

This is about more than fence-mending with one man. In fact, the Lieberman incident is one of several signs in recent days that Obama is dead serious about building bridges and trying to usher in a far less partisan age. He met with rival McCain Monday to map out areas where they could work together -- after all, Obama shares more common positions with McCain than with most other congressional Republicans. And he and Sen. Hillary Clinton are in serious discussions about her becoming his secretary of state despite their long and often bitter primary fight.

A week or so ago, the conventional wisdom (to which I subscribed at the time) was that Democrats would decide they had little choice but to punish Lieberman in the name of party discipline and to get someone so out of step with the party on national security issues away from a key security committee. Now you are already hearing a new conventional wisdom emerge saying they had no choice but to let bygones be bygones. Pragmatism and politics demanded it, the logic goes, because Lieberman could be crucial in close votes. I don't buy it. Democrats have a healthy majority and can do without him in most cases. Even if Lieberman left the caucus in a huff, he still would have been likely to vote with Democrats more often than Republicans. He's still from a blue state, after all.

And whatever political risks there were in dumping Lieberman, there are plenty in keeping him. The Democratic Party is not quite as captive to the activists and liberals that make up the base as the Republican Party is to the conservatives who are its core, but they are crucial nonetheless. Yet Obama is risking their ire by protecting the scalp of an independent who is reviled by many rank-and-file Democrats. Ditto with his moves to embrace Clinton and many former officials from Bill Clinton's White House.

Obama proved in the campaign that he is no naif and he's not going to gamble some of his political capital with the base before he even moves into the White House for no reason. So you have to assume that Obama is not blithely ignoring his base or its wishes, but is sending them a subtle but unmistakable message: He intends to do what he promised and govern from the center and through consultation, bipartisanship and consensus. And that means making a decision that while he needs and wants liberals and party activists behind him, he won't be beholden to them.

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