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Lines Crossed

Senate Democrats wil soon decide whether Joe Lieberman should be allowed to retain his Senate seniority, including a major committee chairmanship, after not only endorsing the other party's presidential candidate, but campaigning for him, joining in attacks on Barack Obama, and speaking at the Republican National Convention.

I said my piece back in April, in a post at TPMCafe. An excerpt:

This argument [for tolerating Lieberman's apostasy out of "bipartisanship"] conflates "bipartisanship" with abandonment of party. It's one thing to cross party lines to support this or that policy initiative or legislation. It's another thing altogether to oppose your supposed party in the contest that more than anything else, defines "party" to begin with. And it has ever been thus.

Back when Lieberman first endorsed McCain, Ken Rudin of NPR did a useful analysis of precedents. The last example he could find of a Member of Congress endorsing the opposing party's presidential candidate without retribution was in 1956, when Adam Clayton Powell, at that point the only African-American Member of Congress, endorsed Eisenhower. You can understand why Democrats might have refrained from punishing him. But since then, three congressional Democrats endorsed other candidates (John Bell Williams of Mississippi and Albert Watson of SC in 1964, and John Rarick in 1968), and all were stripped of their seniority in the House. Unlike Lieberman, all three were, if nothing else, faithfully reflecting the views of their constituents.

Since 1968, there have been, quite literally, hundreds if not thousands of Democratic and Republican officeholders who in one election or the other, privately preferred the other party's presidential candidate. A huge number of Republicans didn't endorse or campaign for Barry Goldwater in 1964, but nor did they endorse or campaign for Lyndon Johnson. And despite the incredible weakness of the national Democratic Party in the South and West during the 1984 and 1988 presidential cycles, you didn't see any public defections from the then-robust ranks of elected Democrats, either.

This is, in sum, the Line You May Not Cross if you choose to identify yourself as a Republican or as a Democrat. John McCain surely understands that; had he followed the entreaties of some of his own staff in 2004 by endorsing--much less joining the ticket of--John Kerry, he would have been stripped of his party prerogatives instantly and eternally.

President-elect Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have suggested that Lieberman shouldn't be automatically booted from the Democratic Caucus. Reid has reportedly offered Lieberman a different, less influential committee chairmanship. But Lieberman has made it clear it's "my way or the highway": he retains his seniority and his Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee chairmanship, or walks across the aisle.

This isn't about "bipartisanship" or "putting the election behind us." Barack Obama has promised to reach out across party lines to work with Republicans when possible; he could still reach out to Joe Lieberman if he chooses to join the GOP Caucus. It's also not about the famous "collegiality" of the Senate. The decision on Lieberman will affect the rights and prerogatives of the 23 current Democratic senators with less seniority, who somehow managed to support their own party's presidential candidate.

Make no mistake: if Lieberman is allowed to retain his seniority and current committee chairmanship, Senate Democrats will be setting an entirely new and incredibly low standard for party loyalty. This would set a precedent that is offensive not only to "activists" or "the base," but to those with heterodox views who felt enough moral obligation to the Donkey Party to at least keep their mouths shut and stay away from Republican campaign rallies and the Republican convention. Lieberman made his own choices, and that's fine; it's a free country and all. But the idea that it's Democrats who are offending him by insisting that his choices have consequences, particularly when they are bending over backwards to keep him in the Caucus when they no longer need his vote to control the Senate, is simply bizarre.

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Do you think Obama is playing good cop, and they'll strip Lieberman of his chairmanship anyway? I hope that's the case. Reid's solution would be acceptable to me, but the party cannot give Lieberman a gavel and a pulpit to denounce the national security and foreign policies Obama ran on, the party supported, and the nation gave a mandate. That would be like the Jewish ecumenical meeting on "South Park" where the rabbi showed up from the Anti-Semitic Synagogue" to advocate wiping out the Jews. Kind of puts ecumenism to the test, doesn't it?

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