While Hillary Clinton once again dominates the headlines, this time as Barack Obama’s possible Secretary of State, another one of the President-elect’s former rivals is making waves in Washington. It’s admirable that Obama has recommended that Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman retain both his seat in the Democratic caucus as well as his chairmanship of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and it certainly jibes with his apparent desire to create a “team of rivals” akin to that of the one described in presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book of the same name. After all, Democrats won the election and there’s always room in the hearts and minds of the victorious for forgiveness, for letting bygones be bygones. But just as it was with Sarah Palin, all one needs to do is look back on what was said and done, and more importantly, how it was said and done, to understand the lingering bad blood, and in the case of Lieberman, the desire on the part of many in Congress to see him stripped of his title.
When John McCain stumbled over this own made-up multi-syllabic epithet “redistributionist” at a swing-state rally two days before the election, Lieberman could be seen just over the Republican candidate’s right shoulder, where he resided for the entirety of the campaign, chuckling and grinning in agreement with every word that fell from McCain’s mouth, every attack on Obama’s character and patriotism, and every reproach of the Democratic policies on which he sturdily built his career over the last four decades. The one-time vice presidential Democratic candidate’s defection from the party—specifically on issues like the Iraq War, national security and torture (he described disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s position on the Geneva Conventions as “reasonable” and “progressive”)—were such that he lost the Democratic primary in his own state two years ago and was forced to run as a third-party independent. Next to Lieberman, the original Maverick himself looks like a stubborn party stalwart.
In a year when simply standing up to corruption in one’s own party is evidently grounds for being branded a political maverick, Lieberman still deserves respect for fighting for what he believes in, right? Maybe not. His personal allegiance to Israel, nothing new in mainstream American politics but obviously the core motivational force behind his current political stance, has transformed Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, into a hawk when it comes to the Middle East, which not only puts him on the wrong side of history (and on the losing side of political history—admittedly a consequence of being a maverick, as John “I’d rather lose an election than lose a war” McCain repeatedly made clear during the campaign) but which is at direct odds with the national security interests of his country and the people he has pledged to protect. That he would continue to serve as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security is, at best, troubling.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has made calling attention to the very real dangers of allowing Lieberman to remain chairman of the committee one of her personal crusades, repeatedly accusing the senator of what she believes is a failure to fulfill the position’s responsibilities. According to a 2007 Newsweek piece titled “Bush’s Best Democratic Buddy,” Lieberman became complicit in George W. Bush’s interpretation of bipartisanship as a rubberstamp for the administration following his 2006 reelection to the Senate. The hammering the Republican Party received in the midterm elections was a mandate for Congress to finally hold the executive branch accountable on a plethora of domestic and foreign policy issues. Lieberman had vowed to use his chairmanship to subpoena documents related to the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, including a transcript of a meeting in which former Federal Emergency Management Agency fall guy Michael Brown warned of an impending disaster. The warning, of course, was met with “deafening silence.” Instead, Lieberman let it go, like floodwaters through an attic—to use Maddow’s fitting metaphor. This, if for no other reason, is grounds for his removal.
At the Republican National Convention in September, in the wake of Hurricane Gustav, Lieberman couched his speech in support of the McCain-Palin ticket in rhetoric so profoundly ironic you could almost hear the collective groan of his Democratic colleagues over the roar of the Republican crowd at the Xcel Energy Center: “It shouldn’t take a hurricane to bring us together like this,” he said before accusing Obama of empty political posturing. For the following 60 days he joined a rightwing chorus that smeared the soon-to-be-former Illinois senator as a Marxist, unpatriotic, even a traitor. Wouldn’t that make Lieberman more apt to use his position of power against the new president, whose judgment, policies and integrity he has repeatedly called into question? Say it ain’t so, Joe!
The likelihood of Mark Begich, Al Franken and Jim Martin winning their seats in those three still undecided Senate races is improbable, which means keeping Lieberman won’t really matter. If the Democratic Party strips him of his chairmanship, it’s unlikely Lieberman will resign, which means the chance of Connecticut’s governor appointing a fellow Republican to the vacant seat is slim, but he’s liable to throw a tantrum and complete his turncoat makeover, which means the Democrats will be one seat farther from their coveted filibuster-proof majority—one that, it should be noted, Lieberman is against. But if he does switch teams, might Connecticut voters give a Republican version of Lieberman the boot in 2012, thereby opening the door for a real Democrat and a real Senate majority? Some might view a revocation of Lieberman’s chairmanship as political vengeance, but rewarding him by allowing him to retain it in the interest of maintaining numbers is just as politically motivated, if not more so. This is an opportunity for Democrats to take a principled stand while, in the process, potentially benefiting politically in the long run too.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.