Lieberman’s Choice: Vanity or Victory

This post is co-authored by Steve Pizer and Austin Frakt.

Senator Lieberman’s abysmal approval ratings in Connecticut (particularly with Democrats) got us thinking about the strategic choice he faces in the next few weeks: does he want leverage on key policy questions over the next three years (and all the national attention that goes with it) plus a substantial risk of defeat in 2012 or does he want to align himself with Republicans, become a peripheral member of the minority party, and have a fighting chance to be reelected?

This leads to what may be the most important political decision of Obama’s presidency. And the decision is Lieberman’s. Will he (A) remain the 60th vote in the Senate to pass health reform or (B) become the 41st vote to kill it? Let’s game it out, presuming all other 59 Democratic Senators vote for reform.

Choice A, the 60th Yea. Sticking with the Democrats will assure passage and deliver a major victory to Democrats and Obama. Lieberman will remain welcome within the Democratic Caucus (even if still loathed by liberals), and he will retain his chairmanship. The Democrats can look forward to the hope of passing additional legislation this year along strict party-line votes, with Lieberman a key swing vote. For that reason, this would be the vain choice, putting Lieberman in the position of legislative king-maker.

However, Lieberman will have to defend his alliance with the Democrats in 2012 when he runs for reelection. The risk of him being out-flanked to his right is high and victory in that election is uncertain.

Choice B, the 41st Nay. Lieberman could claim change of heart or dissatisfaction with any of the adjustments to the bill as it is merged with the House version as reason to flip (consistency with prior positions is not his strongest character trait). If he does so he will deal a devastating blow to the Democrats and taint Obama’s first year, with implications for the midterms. The Democrats would probably revoke his chairmanship and kick him out of the caucus. But the Republicans would love him. He’d likely run toward their embrace and recast himself as a member, running in 2012 as a Republican and giving himself a fighting chance at victory. I’m not the first to suggest this possibility (see Josh Marshal).

The down side for Lieberman here is that he would not and could not be a member of the majority for the next three years (presuming the Republicans do not regain the Senate in the midterms, which is highly unlikely). What Democratic majority remains would be too small to break a Republican filibuster, so most important policy changes will require reconciliation, making Lieberman’s vote much less relevant.

In Conclusion. We would like to think that Lieberman will yield to vanity and vote for reform. But we can’t completely discount his desire for victory in 2012 which could motivate him toward defection. It is almost certain he’s thinking these two options over, under pressure from colleagues on both sides of the aisle. His track records on party loyalty and intellectual consistency are not good. His decision comes down to how he views his 2012 race and what he wants to accomplish in the next three years.

One counter argument to the above is that if Lieberman really wanted to kill health reform he would have done so already. A counter to that is that the later in the game it gets spiked the more damaging to Democrats. Moreover, all previous votes just kept these options alive. Given that both are still available, both are possible.

For now, we bet on vanity, but this game is not over.

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