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Lieberman and McCain: They’re close friends, but they differ on many issues

After a polite but muted welcome, delegates cheered enthusiastically when Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman forcefully presented his arguments as to why John McCain rather than Barack Obama should be the next president.

After a polite but muted welcome, delegates cheered enthusiastically when Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman forcefully presented his arguments as to why John McCain rather than Barack Obama should be the next president. The crowd gathered in St. Paul, however, was not the intended audience for this speech. After all, conservative Republicans had balked at the idea that McCain might select pro-choice Lieberman as his running mate. 

Lieberman’s intended audience was instead in living rooms across America, perhaps only half watching their televisions. But it does not take an attentive audience to realize that this was not just any senator speaking, or even any Democratic senator, this was Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in the historic 2000 election. How better to demonstrate McCain’s bipartisan credentials than with a speech from a well-known Democratic senator? 

Lieberman was explicit about wooing fellow Democrats: 

“I want to speak directly to my fellow Democrats and independents who are watching or listening tonight. . . I know many of you are angry and frustrated by our government and our politics today, and for good reason. You may be thinking of voting for John McCain, but you’re not sure yet. Some of you may never have voted for a Republican before. And, frankly, in an ordinary election, you probably never would.”

Lieberman emphasized that McCain prioritizes his country above his party, reinforcing a convention theme. In doing so, Lieberman also bolsters McCain’s bipartisan credentials, which have been under attack given McCain’s ideological shift to the right in recent years. 

Technically, Lieberman is now an independent senator, having won re-election to the Senate with that label in the 2006 elections. He typically refers to himself as an “Independent Democrat,” but last night he continually – and strategically – repeatedly referred to himself as a Democrat. He even squeezed in some praise for President Bill Clinton as proof.

Why Lieberman?
Early in his speech, Lieberman queried the crowd: “What, after all, is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this?”

Good question. How could, and why would, a prominent Democrat keynote a GOP convention? Lieberman’s strong and vocal support of the war in Iraq is an important element of his support for McCain. And they have introduced global warming legislation together in the Senate. But, beyond that, Lieberman and McCain do not share many policy positions. Their overall voting records stand in sharp contrast: In 2007, on votes that divided the two parties, McCain voted with Republicans 90 percent of the time while Lieberman voted with Democrats 81 percent of the time, according to CQ Weekly. 

Perhaps most important, in a Congress where friendships that cross party lines are increasingly rare, Lieberman and McCain are very close friends.  Prior to Lieberman’s speech on Tuesday at a session at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., noted that Lieberman and McCain are “like blood brothers.”

Lieberman has always had an independent – or moralistic, depending on who you ask – streak. In 1998, he was a leading critic of President Clinton’s actions during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 

Lieberman’s independent streak took on new meaning in the 110th Congress that began in 2007. Lieberman, first elected to the Senate in 1988, was forced by Democrats in his state to run for reelection in 2006 as an independent. Connecticut’s Democratic primary voters rejected him in favor of Ned Lamont. Lieberman defeated Lamont without the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or some of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

Lieberman likely returned to the chamber with some resentment toward his colleagues who had abandoned him on the campaign trail. Nonetheless, he still caucuses with Senate Democrats, providing them with the critical 51st seat in the Senate. Even in a chamber that requires 60 votes to pass most major legislation, majority control gives Democrats chairmanships and majorities on all committees, along with some degree of agenda control.  (If the party ratios were 50-50, Vice President Dick Cheney would break the tie, giving Republicans a majority). Lieberman himself chairs a committee, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

Keeping Lieberman in the fold
Democrats were angry last year when Lieberman announced his support for McCain, and they were even angrier when Lieberman agreed to keynote the Republican convention. Given that Democrats’ majority control hinges on Lieberman’s support, however, they have had strong incentives to keep Lieberman in the fold without punishment.

These incentives will weaken with a sizable increase in Democrats’ majority in the next Congress. With majority control no longer contingent on Lieberman’s support, it is likely that some Democratic senators – and many Democratic activists – will argue that Lieberman should lose his committee chairmanship. 

Such a move would be highly unusual. Despite increased party cohesion and polarization between the parties, party leaders in the Senate have been unwilling to discipline their members for disloyalty. In the Senate, a strict seniority system dictates that committee chairmanships go to the senior majority party member on the committee. 

In recent years, Senate Republicans have contemplated disciplining maverick committee chairs. In 1995, Senator Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., broke with his party over the balanced-budget amendment, casting a decisive vote against it on the Senate floor. Although Hatfield frequently voted against his GOP colleagues, this vote compelled conservative Republican senators to lead an unsuccessful effort to strip him of the Appropriations Committee chairmanship. Republican leaders opposed this move, and after a meeting where the Conference discussed it, leaders did not bring it to a vote. In 2005, conservative activists protested when seniority dictated that the Judiciary Committee chairmanship would go to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn.  After Specter publicly denied that he would deny confirmation to pro-life nominees to the federal courts and pledged his loyalty to the Bush administration and his party, he held onto his chairmanship.  

Angry Democrats
Senate Democrats will disagree about what should happen to Lieberman’s chairmanship. Over the past two years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has tried to ensure that Lieberman still feels welcome in the caucus gatherings. Senators value their seniority system and individualism, as it benefits all of them the longer they stay. And, if election forecasts are accurate, Democrats will still need Lieberman’s support, and the support of some Republicans, to break a filibuster. 

But, anger over Lieberman’s betrayal runs high, and last night’s speech gives Democratic senators ammunition to argue that Lieberman should be demoted. And in contrast to Lieberman, Democrats may stress his Independent label rather than his Democratic label.

Before Lieberman’s speech, I asked Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution for his prediction. Not surprisingly, he noted that Lieberman’s fate depends on the outcome of the elections, i.e., how many seats Democrats pick up. He also suggested that a President Obama, along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, would likely support allowing Lieberman to retain his committee chairmanship, but that pressure would likely come from rank-and-file Democratic Senators to oust him. 

No matter who is president, Democrats’ decision regarding Lieberman will provide an early indicator as to whether the next Congress will be the bipartisan arena that both candidates promise – a “post-partisan era” or an era in which “country comes before party.”