Democrats go easy on Lieberman

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Dorning, Hook and Oliphant are writers in our Washington bureau.

Barack Obama has long presented himself as a hybrid -- at once a liberal advocate and a post-partisan bridge-builder, a romantic out to change the world and a pragmatist grounded in the realities of politics.

The tension in Obama’s political makeup is coming into clearer view as he moves closer to governing.

On Tuesday, some of his liberal activist supporters reacted with anger when Senate Democrats -- at Obama’s urging -- turned aside attempts to strip Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) of a committee chairmanship. The liberals, and some senators, had wanted to punish Lieberman for campaigning on behalf of John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee.


An independent who is allied with Democrats, Lieberman is reviled as a turncoat by Democratic loyalists and despised by antiwar activists for his support of the Iraq war. So his continued presence in a high-profile post was a bitter disappointment to many of the same people who enthusiastically embraced Obama.

“Outrageous,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who pulled out a copy of Lieberman’s speech to the Republican National Convention to read aloud passages to reporters staked outside a meeting of Senate Democrats.

Liberal blogs buzzed with fury. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, editor of the Daily Kos website, denounced Democrats as tone-deaf and “completely unable to understand” how they earned their majority.

The liberal anger, however, did not include signs of diminished enthusiasm for the president-elect. That may provide Obama with more room to maneuver as he uses the aftermath of his election victory to send conciliatory signals.

Obama is trying to heal the rift within the party by reaching out to his primary election opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), by considering her for secretary of State. Wasting little time after the election, he conferred with McCain on Monday, in one of the earliest post-campaign meetings to take place between White House rivals.

The steps reflect an inclination toward consensus-building and the political center evident throughout Obama’s life.


Though a favorite of liberal bloggers, he posted an essay defending Democratic senators who voted to confirm Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. against vitriolic attacks on the Internet.

When Lieberman faced a challenge from the antiwar left in 2006, Obama campaigned on his behalf during the primary. Later, he gave eventual Democratic nominee Ned Lamont only an e-mail endorsement late in the general election campaign while Lieberman ran as an independent.

As far back as Obama’s tenure as president of the Harvard Law Review, during a time of deep ideological division, he surprised many of his liberal supporters by selecting conservative members of the staff for several coveted positions as editors.

Newly elected presidents tend to follow a tradition of public gestures of magnanimity toward rivals and expressions of support for bipartisan government -- even if they do not always follow through once in office. George W. Bush came to the White House promising to change the partisan tone of Washington but then governed with a polarizing style.

The first weeks of transition are an opportunity for a newly elected president to alter his public image to fill the role of national leader rather than partisan candidate.

In dealing with Lieberman, Obama has been well aware of how often legislation fails or succeeds on a single vote. An embittered senator poses particular peril because of Senate rules that allow any one member to grind business to a halt and obstruct legislation.


That is a reality that influential liberal activists said they understood. Even as Zuniga excoriated Senate Democrats for not moving more aggressively against Lieberman, he gave Obama a pass on the president-elect’s expression of support for the Connecticut senator.

“He has to make nice comments about Lieberman. He met with McCain the other day. It’s all theater,” Zuniga said.

John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, an antiwar group, said although he and other activists were disappointed by the Lieberman outcome, it did not hurt Obama’s credibility.

Senate Democrats voted 42 to 13 on Tuesday not to strip Lieberman of his post as chairman of the homeland security committee. As part of the arrangement, the senators approved a resolution condemning statements Lieberman made during the campaign and said he would have to leave the Senate’s environment panel.

The senators were quick to publicly credit Obama for their decision. Last week, he had asked them not to drive away Lieberman, who usually works with the party.

“Sen. Obama is the one who’s setting the tone,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a strong Obama supporter. “The ‘old politics’ is revenge and retribution. The ‘new politics’ is let’s get together and work together. It would have been uncomfortable, like wearing shoes a size too small, to say, ‘Off with his head.’ ”


Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) was still seething at Lieberman, but he said the party had to take its cue from Obama.

“If Barack can move on, so can we,” Carper said. “Sen. Joe Lieberman’s repeated criticism of Barack this fall was not just disappointing, it was hurtful. There must be consequences for those comments.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had been harshly critical of Lieberman before the vote, but he urged angry liberal activists to put the matter behind them.

“Let me say that I . . . pretty well understand anger,” Reid told reporters. “I would defy anyone to be more angry than I was. But I also believe that if you look at the problems we face as a nation, is this a time we walk out of here saying, ‘Boy, did we get even’?”

After the vote, Lieberman thanked Obama for his show of support and said he regretted some of the statements he made in the heat of the campaign -- although he said some had been misconstrued.

“There are other statements that I made that I wish I had made more clearly,” he told reporters. “And there are some that I made that I wish I had not made at all.”