Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lieberman Survives Because We Blew It

How did Lieberman manage to do it? How did he manage to win back the gavel of the Homeland Security Committee even after he (1) endorsed the other party's candidate for President, (2) openly called into question the patriotism of the Democrat's candidate and (3) campaigned for other Republican Senators over other Democrats?

There's a lot of screaming about gutless Democratic leadership and I agree with most of that criticism. But I think we need to step back and look at ourselves in the mirror, because it is we who gave Lieberman the ammunition he needed to win this fight.

From the very first this story has been framed as a story of "revenge" and "punishment" as part of a "purge" for "disloyalty". That framing allowed Lieberman to paint himself as the victim and put Democrat leaders in the untenable position of defending "revenge". The Senate leadership went along with it by repeatedly talking about wanting to "bury the hatchet" and "let bygones be bygones" and "not getting distracted by divisiveness." Even those Senators who despise Lieberman for his actions didn't want anything to do with a "purge".

But what if we had framed it differently? What if we had said that neither Lieberman nor any other Senator has a "right" to the gavel and that getting it was a "privilege" received as a "reward" for working with the caucus to advance the Democratic agenda. If the discussion had started out that way then the choice would have been obvious. You don't "reward" someone who has undermined your political agenda. Lieberman, like every other incoming chair, had to earn his position and he failed to do so.

The Democratic leadership didn't even try to frame it that way (because, frankly, I don't think they really had much stomach for this fight). But neither did we. We really were out for blood and we weren't hesitant to say so. Revenge should have had nothing to do with it. But the desire for blood overwhelmed those who have been hurt by Lieberman and that gave him exactly what he needed to win.

Throw obscenities at Democratic leaders all you want. But we failed as spectacularly as they did. And we should have known better. We understand the value of framing and messaging. But we let the desire for revenge get in the way of being smart.

Shame on us all.


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