Thursday, November 20, 2008

A cold hard look at Lieberman

Joe Lieberman will be chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. That's old news, but some people are still upset about it, and it looks like this might be one of those touchstone issues that demarcates ideology and alliances. Maybe not quite that dramatic, but it will not be forgotten.

I don't care that much, but I think the issue is worth a second look because of what it says about how Obama intends to govern. One of the primary concerns about letting Lieberman keep his post is that it makes Democrats look weak. I disagree.

Lieberman will tell you that he campaigned for John McCain because he honestly believed that McCain was better prepared to deal with the war on terror. I'm willing to buy that, because it was clearly against his best interest to actually campaign for McCain. If McCain had won, which was always a long shot, Lieberman would have been in his good graces, but the rest of the Senate Dems, who control the Senate, would have been furious with him. From a political strategy standpoint, it really did Lieberman no good to campaign for McCain. Which is why I believe that campaigning for McCain was, for him, an act of conscience; he certainly wasn't motivated by cynical political considerations.

But Lieberman lost his gamble. He ended up with the worst of both worlds: McCain lost, and the Democrats won enough seats that they don't need him as much as they used to, although they still would like to enjoy his company.

He didn't just lose his gamble; he lost a lot of political capital. Even after he kept his chairmanship, he's not the senator he was before. His chances of winning in 2012 are slim at best, so he's not a long-term threat to other senators. Most important, though, he accomplished nothing with his endorsement of and campaigning for McCain. Obama won Connecticut and Florida, the two places where Lieberman's endorsement might have made a difference.

Obama approaches Lieberman from a position of seriously superior strength. Obama put Lieberman in his place just by winning. By not opposing him, Obama put Lieberman in his debt. That is not weakness; that is being aware of your own strengths.

After gambling and losing, Lieberman's grip on his status in the senate was tenuous. If he had lost his chair, he would have been rendered impotent. By saving him, Obama made him powerful again, which is why he is in Obama's debt (and Harry Reid's). He disagrees with Obama on the war, but he's slightly less likely to oppose the new, very popular president if he owes him big time. Supporting the president is a powerful motivating factor in Washington; it's going to be difficult for Lieberman to do so.

But whether or not he would even do so is a different question. At the end of the day, it comes down to policy. There are a number of things that Obama wants to do that potentially involve homeland security, but his most important goals, i.e. ending the war in Iraq, winning the war in Afghanistan, would go through Foreign Relations, now chaired by John Kerry, or Armed Services, chaired by my favorite old pro from Michigan, Carl Levin. Will Joe Lieberman be able to make trouble for Obama? Honestly, I don't really know enough about the influence of the chair of the Homeland Security Committee to make a judgment there. Does Joe Lieberman want to make trouble for Obama?

My guess there is no. He will want to engage Obama in debate, but that's fine, and even healthy. I'm sure there will be some disagreements that are stronger than others; I wouldn't be surprised if Lieberman frustrates Obama now and then. But serious trouble? I doubt it.

Barack Obama was elected President in part because he promised to change the tone in Washington. Part of that means calming down the rhetoric, respecting people who disagree with him, listening to those people, and not picking fights just because you think you're right. Obama is not interested in retribution, particularly for comments made in the heat of the campaign that ultimately turned out to be meaningless.

I once read a story about Abraham Lincoln after the end of the Civil War. He met some Southerners in the White House, and charmed them. His aides were distressed; they had hoped he would punish the rebels. Lincoln replied that he not only gained friends, he lost enemies in the transaction. Joe Lieberman is much more useful to Barack Obama and the other Senate Democrats as a grateful friend than as a bitter enemy. Lieberman might be able to make trouble for Obama as chair of his committee, but he's less likely to do so, given that Obama let him keep it (I'm not going to address to what extent Obama interfered with the drama in the Senate, but I think it's clear that if he had wanted Lieberman gone, he could have made that clear, and he didn't). If he had been kicked out of his chairmanship, he would not have had as good of a position for causing trouble. But he would have been much more likely to do so.

Welcome to an administration that understands how powerful being gracious can be. It's going to take some getting used to.

No comments: