What's All This Then?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I’m sorry but I just can’t get over the idea of Joe Lieberman keeping his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and continuing to caucus with the Senate Democrats - up to three weeks ago his arch enemies, led by someone he said was lacking the skills and experience to become President of the United States.

I know harsh things are said about each other by opponents in party primaries - said by people who are members of the same party, who would never dream of speaking at a rival party’s convention or support a rival party’s candidate for the presidency. So we had Hillary Clinton saying that she and John McCain had lots of experience to offer while Obama had a speech as the core of his resume. And we had Joe Biden accusing Obama of not supporting the troops. The more I hear those kinds of attacks during presidential primaries, the more I pine for the smoke filled rooms with party members choosing candidates behind closed doors. Primaries may be more democratic - small d - but they can also be more destructive and when the primary season ends and candidates are chosen - the two candidates for the office in question have a basket of ammunition to hurl at each other - courtesy of their opponent’s fellow party members. Still, former primary opponents usually band together to support whoever wins their competition - and so we have Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton.

But Joe Lieberman is a whole other kettle of fish. To me, he represents a bar lowered to a level that should never be reached in presidential politics - and I’m deeply disappointed at the way Obama and members of the Democratic Senate caucus have allowed him to slither under it. Lieberman accumulated his seniority status and thus his committee chairmanship, as a member of the Democratic party. Even after his most recent reelection when he ran after losing the Democratic primary - he ran as - and still calls himself - an Independent Democrat. That alone makes it difficult for his former Democratic colleagues to forgive his endorsement of John McCain for president - but had he left it at that, even I, who have lost all respect for the man, would not have condemned him. After all, he’s known McCain for years, considers him a friend and most likely was genuine in his belief that McCain would make a better president than Obama. But he didn’t leave it at that. He spoke at the Republican convention, campaigned vigorously for and with McCain - and attacked Obama just as vigorously. Now he wants to be welcomed back to the Democratic caucus and regrettably, Obama is accommodating him.

Some insist that by saying that he holds no grudge and by urging the Democratic caucus to welcome Lieberman back into the Democratic fold - Obama is demonstrating an aspect of the "change" that he has been promising - the aspect of reaching out to those who oppose him - to be bipartisan in his relations with the House and Senate. I think he is demonstrating something else - something perilously close to a lack of judgment on matters of ethical responsibility and culpability. I’m sure there is a limit to how many times the future president is willing to turn the other cheek in his effort to promote political harmony. But if Lieberman’s behavior doesn’t reach that tolerance limit, you have to wonder what does - or what will.

Examples abound of terrible behavior being tolerated in order to achieve some goal. The most common example is in what is tolerated in sports - football in particular, where a blind eye is often turned to irresponsible behavior off the field as long as game performance contributes to a winning season. But even team owners and coaches who subscribe to the belief that winning is "everything" have their limits in what kind of behavior they’ll accept in return for an exceptional ability to run, throw or catch. And star players have been let go when their behavior reaches an intolerable level - even when their absence diminishes the team’s chances of winning.

What Obama seems to be signaling is that he has a virtually unlimited tolerance level for what most of the people who supported him would view as totally unacceptable behavior. To me this translates into a misguided sense of the worth of political accommodation and its value above ethical considerations. As I’ve said, you have to wonder what it would take for Obama to refrain from holding out the hand of reconciliation. You have to wonder how such an attitude might translate into dealing with the despots of the world. You have to wonder where Obama would draw the line - at what point he would view behavior as unacceptable and conduct himself accordingly.

I watched Keith Olbermann play a tape of a Joe Lieberman post election interview last night in which he denied ever saying that Obama wasn’t ready to be president - followed by a tape of a much earlier interview in which he said exactly that - after which Keith declared him last night’s "Worse Person in the World." I think he has lost all credibility and shouldn’t be running a committee as important as Homeland Security. If Obama needs a critical Senate vote or two to get legislation past potential filibusters, I think he’d be better off looking for it across the aisle - to people like George Voinovich or Olympia Snow. The cost of getting it from Joe Lieberman is just too high.