Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Lieberman Gambit

Holy Joe's retirement closes the book, more or less, on a great question: was the decision by liberals to go all in on the primary challenge in 2006 a good idea?

I called it "a reasonable gamble by liberals gone bad" a while ago, but I think I was wrong. 

Going back to the 2006, Joe Lieberman was a very annoying Senator for many liberals, but he was not the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. He was, however, probably the Democratic Senator farthest to the right compared to his state, which made him a logical primary target, even if he wasn't so personally annoying. Alas for liberals, the primary wound up with probably the worst possible result. Had Lieberman won, he probably would have shrugged it off and continued on with his career; if he had been clobbered by Ned Lamont, he probably would have quit at that point. Instead, with Lamont edging him by 10,000 votes and everything else falling perfectly into place, Lieberman wound up returning to Washington as a party-defying independent.

As it worked out, however, I can't recall a single instance in which Joe Lieberman was the deciding vote against the Democrats. He was with Barack Obama on the stimulus, on health care, and on Dodd-Frank. He was a leader in the successful repeal of DADT, and the unsuccessful climate/energy bill. His voting record really didn't even shift very much. Against that is that he probably became even more annoying to liberals (here, I'll link again to Gail Collins's appreciation). And then there's whatever electoral value derived from his party-defying endorsement of John McCain in 2008, which I'd say was practically zero (and that's assuming he wouldn't have done it if he hadn't been challenged in 2006; if he would have done it anyway, and as a Democrat in good standing, the endorsement would have carried a bit more weight, for what it's worth). 

And, now, his retirement. It seems to me very, very likely that had Lieberman won renomination unchallenged in 2006, he would now be running for another term and heading for renomination, at least. If 2012 turns out to be a fair-to-good year for Democrats, then as it is Connecticut will probably send a liberal Democrat to Congress, instead of returning Holy Joe for another term as a moderate. 

Regular readers know that I'm usually pretty quick to point out the downside to ideological primary challenges. But I think liberals can be pretty happy with themselves on this one; even though things didn't work out how they wanted, they probably did wind up beating Joe Lieberman six years down the road, and with very little cost in the interim.  


  1. As I recall, Lieberman was the deciding vote for the Dems against having an option for 50-year-olds to buy into Medicare.

  2. I can't recall a single instance in which Joe Lieberman was the deciding vote against the Democrats.

    That's only because he extorted concessions out of Democrats in exchange for his vote. Surely you remember Holy Joe's 11th-hour public option hissyfit?

  3. But he was just loud about it; Ben Nelson never signed on to either of those things, and I think it's unlikely that Bayh, Landrieu, Lincoln, and perhaps one or two others were on board. Granted, you can never tell how these things work out the other CT Senator had just been willing to quietly do whatever Chris Dodd wanted, but I'll stick with what I said: annoying, but not decisive.

  4. Moreover, I'm not sure you can say that Lieberman would've gone along with a public option anyway, even without the '06 primary.

    Another benefit, though this one is quite a bit more intangible: incumbent Dems are more aware of primary challenges now, especially in states with "Sore Loser" laws. I have no idea how you quantify that, but it couldn't have hurt.

  5. Good point, but I'm not sure it "couldn't" hurt -- I think Republicans may well be hurt in '12 by being overly worried about primary challenges over the next two years. In this case, though, it seems very unlikely that it had effects liberals wouldn't like.

  6. The Connecticut primary challenge may have also (unintentionally) helped pave the way for the Democrats to transition from the Clinton/Gore years to now, where Obama is unmistakably the face of the party.

    This may be a bit of a stretch, but the argument would be that while Gore went for Lieberman as a moral antidote to Clinton, the 2006 primary (+ the 2008 campaign) pretty much put paid to the meme of Lieberman as moral superwarrior.

    Not to oversell the argument, as Lieberman's purported moral superiority is a small part of the tragic arc of Gore's narrative. Still, its interesting to consider the vast difference between Gore and Nixon 11 years after each's heartbreaking Presidential loss, so its hard not to think about the role, however minor, that the fall of Lieberman may have played in the fall of Gore.

  7. First, I think that Lieberman's "pay attention to me, Specter isn't the only one who can be the 60th vote" noise through much of summer and fall 09, when he was making up objections to ACA (making up because he had proposed some of those very ideas himself) hurt. I seriously wonder if Ned Lamont would have led to the Senate passing something in, oh, November or October. Which would have meant much faster House action...none of the "oh no, Scott Brown won, now we have to dance for a month before we find our balls again delay." Obviously, I can't be sure, but it seems plausible to me.

    Second, I'm not sure that, prior to Lieberman pulling his "now I'm an Indie stunt," that it should have been expected that he would do that. I realize that, post-Lieberman, Crist running as an Indie was easy to predict and somewhat ho-hum, but what was the precedent for Lieberman's move? When was the last time that happened prior to 2006?

  8. You forgot to mention something!

    If, in fact, 2006's challenge and follow up is a cause of Joe retiring in 2012 and being replaced by someone younger, who will retire in a much later cycle than Joe otherwise would, and if 2012 is a good year for Democrats... it's an ANTI-cyclical replacement!

  9. Matt,

    During summer and fall, the action was in HELP and especially Finance, and Lieberman wasn't part of that. His noisy time was later, in the late fall, and I absolutely disagree that it mattered more than (1) Ben Nelson, and (2) the possibility of getting Snowe + one or two others.

    You're right that no one could have expected an indy bid at the beginning of the 2006 cycle. By primary election day, however, it was likely if he lost narrowly.


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