Joe Lieberman -- The Man Without a Party

Say what you want about Joe Lieberman (and most people have), but you have to admire his chutzpah.

Say what you want about Joe Lieberman (and most people have), but you have to admire his chutzpah. When he got shellacked in the Connecticut Democratic primary two years ago because of his support of Bush's war in Iraq, Lieberman refused to quit. Instead, he became an independent and got elected with the help of Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats.

He returned to Washington as if nothing had happened. Democrats were willing to accept him back into the fold because his vote tipped control of the evenly divided Senate their way. Lieberman was happy because he got to be chairman of the Homeland Security Committee as part of the deal. But then came 2008. This time he really bolted in everything but name. He endorsed John McCain, made a prime-time speech at the GOP convention, campaigned across the country and said some pretty nasty things about Barack Obama (opens in new tab) in the process.

Democrats now want to punish him (opens in new tab) by taking away his prized committee chairmanship. They're not kicking him out of the party, as many Obama supporters would prefer, and in fact they're offering him a consolation prize -- the chairmanship of the Small Business Committee (opens in new tab). But that doesn't appeal to Lieberman, who's more interested in national security and the more high-profile spot he held until now. He's going to appeal to the Democratic Steering Committee next week (opens in new tab), but he has about a zero chance of getting what he wants. So then what?

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The Democrats say they don't want Lieberman to leave the party completely, but they won't lose any sleep if he does. The difference between 56 and 57 Senate seats -- which is where things stand while couple of races still get sorted out -- is pretty marginal. And whatever Lieberman calls himself, he's still likely to vote the way he always has -- with Democrats on most social issues and with Republicans on most foreign policy questions. The Republicans are urging him to switch to their side, but let's face it, they don't have much to offer him.

Are Democrats being unfair to Lieberman? Republicans say punishing him flies in the face of Obama's promise of bipartisanship, but that's nonsense. It's important to negotiate and compromise, but you have to do that from a position of strength, which is hard if you don't exert at least some party discipline. And let's face it, can you imagine GOP leaders patting one of their wayward members on the back and saying all is forgiven?

The Democrats, in fact, have offered a compromise. Any chairmanship carries some power. The Small Business Committee may not wield much of it at the moment, but that could change, given that every other sentence in the campaign seemed to focus on the importance of small business as an engine of growth. And invigorating small businesses has long been a pet cause of Lieberman's for years.

Lieberman's problem is that he really is an independent in a political world where parties reign and independence is a hindrance. Power in Congress comes from the party, with the majority controlling the power apparatus and the minority waiting for the time when it will get its turn. True independents may get more freedom, but there are no party rewards and little influence It may be easier for them to resist arm-twisting, but they probably have twice as many people trying.

So Joe, you have a tough decision to make. My advice is swallow your pride, take Small Business and make the best of it. Ultimately, you and the voters of Connecticut will have to decide what comes after that.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter