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Originally published Friday, November 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Why the Democrats aren't spanking Joe Lieberman

Democrats were right not to expel Lieberman and for a simple reason: Because he says he wants to be among them. No one has to love him. And, as Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh has noted, Democrats can always revoke his chairmanship later if he acts up.

Syndicated columnist

You don't have to venture too far left in the Democratic Party to find people who dislike Joe Lieberman. But wander yonder into the liberal blogosphere, and the feeling more approximates detestation. The left wanted the Connecticut senator's scalp — if not expulsion from the party caucus, then at least repossession of his chairman's gavel at the Homeland Security Committee.

It got neither. Senate Democrats let Lieberman off with only a light smack in the rear — loss of a subcommittee chairmanship — all with Barack Obama's blessing. For the left, this will be but one of many disappointments to come.

One might remind the netroots of a useful Sicilian proverb: Revenge is a dish best served cold. Given Lieberman's dismal poll numbers in Connecticut, his comeuppance will eventually come up, but might require waiting four years for the term to end.

Heaven knows, Democrats were provoked. It was one thing for Lieberman to enthuse over the Iraq war or even campaign alongside Republican John McCain. It was quite another to add fuel to the most moronic misrepresentations of fellow Democrats. Example: Asked whether Obama is a Marxist, he responded, "I must say this is a good question."

It helps to understand who Lieberman is politically and personally. He is a registered Democrat but officially an independent. He was a total Democrat until 2006, when Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont defeated him in that state's senatorial primary.

Lieberman then ran as an "independent Democrat" against Lamont and a nearly invisible Republican. While campaigning, he reassured his increasingly blue electorate that a vote for him was not a vote for keeping a Republican majority in the Senate — that he would organize with Democrats.

Why did Lieberman go so far out of his way to offend the people he organizes with? For one thing, he has a penchant for ingratiating himself with right-wing talk-show hosts. He feeds them the lines they want. For another, he was working some revenge of his own.

Lieberman has expressed hurt that many of his Democratic colleagues supported Lamont in 2006. These charges of disloyalty, trumpeted in the right-wing media, might strike some as strange. One would expect the senators' loyalty to lie with the Democratic primary voters, not with their cronies.

Why did party leaders spare Lieberman the rod? After all, Senate Democrats have a safe majority without him. And suppose all the undecided races go the Democrats' way, giving the party 60 senators — a so-called filibuster-proof majority. Well, that majority is filibuster-proof only if every single Democrat goes along on a particular vote. Lieberman (or someone else) might not.

Democrats were right not to expel Lieberman and for a simple reason: Because he says he wants to be among them. No one has to love him. And, as Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh has noted, Democrats can always revoke his chairmanship later if he acts up.

An even better reason for not banishing Lieberman is that doing so would undercut Obama's message of unity. Few people want to see the last of Lieberman more than the president-elect, but Obama knows that evicting the renegade would start his administration off on a discordant note. Playing it cool is Obama's way.

Which brings us back to the revenge.

In 2006, Lieberman cleverly ran as a virtual Democrat while serving on a subterranean level as the de facto Republican. He is unlikely to pull off that card trick again.

Some Connecticut Democrats are still thinking up new punishments for Lieberman. Their energies would be better directed on preparing for 2012.

Here's another Sicilian saying, this one for Lieberman: "When you lose friends, you go down many steps."

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

2008, The Providence Journal Co.

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