HEADLINE: Senate Democrats Draw Their Pistol, Take Aim and ... Shoot Selves Foot
(1) Joe Lieberman was mad that many of his colleagues had not supported him after he lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont in 2006.
As a description of fact this is no doubt true. But it says a whole lot about Lieberman and his warped view of politics. After all he lost the primary to Lamont. And almost by definition of the term "party," the Democrats then treated Lamont as their candidate. Stunning! Lieberman seems to mis-understand two things. First, the definition and role of a political party. Second, when you piss off your basic constituency by supporting policies (on, say, foreign affairs) with which they disagree, you invite opposition (like, say, primary challengers). So Lieberman may be angry about 2006, but his anger is ill-founded insofar as he brought the situation on himself.
The upshot: The Senate democrats have just endorsed Lieberman's self-serving view of political parties and the point of primary elections.
(2) As president-elect Obama did not want to send the 'wrong message' by supporting (or appearing to support) sanctions against Lieberman. In particular, he wants to accomplish either of two things (perhaps both): (a) get beyond partisan divisiveness or (b) come closer to a veto-proof majority in the Senate, thereby taking a pragmatic step toward implementing the Obama "agenda."
This raises at least three matters. First, Lieberman's absolution itself sends a message. It says that there is virtually nothing a member of the Democratic caucus can do that merits forfeiting her or his seniority and the perquisites that follow on that seniority. Here, as always, the Democrats have proven themselves to be weenies. At TPM Josh Marshall rightly observes that one might describe the "sanctions" the caucus imposed on Lieberman thusly: "Lieberman expelled from Pilates class in Senate gym."
Second, the two underlying reasons (a) and (b) are in obvious tension. If the point is to keep Lieberman's vote because it will help Obama implement his agenda that seems to be a clear recognition that he anticipates the Republicans will mount significant opposition to his agenda. In other words, it is wishful thinking to believe that partisan divisiveness is a thing of the past. And a veto-proof majority simply means that since we've not moved beyond partisan divisiveness, the Democrats might be able to simply ignore those who opposed their plans. (II say might because they will need to impose unlikely levels of party unity to do so.)
Finally, all that said, let's talk reality. Even with Lieberman's vote the chances of the Democrats having a veto-proof majority in the Senate are epsilon (a very, very, very small number). They still need victories in all three undecided Senate elections - Alaska, Georgia, & Minnesota - and that is highly unlikely. Note too that in any given instance Lieberman's vote is quite unreliable. He has never offered a single bit of evidence that he is anything but opportunist. He will ditch (or worse) the Democrats at the first chance. He has borne no cost for his past bad behavior. And, having now granted him absolution, the caucus has no leverage over him when he behaves badly in the future. My prediction is that he will behave badly pretty damned soon.