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All Senate 'Democrats' are Key

By Froma Harrop

The senator, fresh from re-election, was asked on C-SPAN whether he might bolt the Democrats and become a Republican. We speak not of Connecticut's Joe Lieberman but of Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Nelson responded, "I can't see any set of circumstances where that would be the case."

Lieberman's answer to the same question on "Meet the Press" was less forthright. He said that he planned to caucus with Democrats as promised in his campaign. But when pushed further on whether he might someday switch parties -- sending majority control of the closely divided Senate to Republicans -- Lieberman coyly said, "I'm not ruling it out, but I hope I don't come to that point."

All this talk of Joe's importance -- or self-importance -- obscures a bigger reality: A defection by any of the Senate's 48 Democrats or two independents would give Republicans a Senate majority. They all have the same power.

Lieberman seems in charge only because days after vowing from Greenwich to Grosvenor Dale that he would act as a virtual Democrat, he emitted little hints that he could change his mind. That's serious dodging considering that the centerpiece of his campaign was the promise to organize with Democrats.

Actually, no one could leave the Democratic Party with less fuss than Ben Nelson. Nebraska is a famously red state. Republicans carried it in 16 of the last 17 presidential elections. (The Democratic exception was Lyndon Johnson, in 1964.) The most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Nelson could change the "D" after his name to an "R," and most of his constituents would barely notice.

Former Omaha World-Herald publisher Harold Andersen remarked in a recent column that while Nebraskans have sent Democrats to the U.S. Senate before, this "may have been the first time that the election of a Democrat in Republican-majority Nebraska had such a national impact."

People are always asking Nelson about changing parties. "To his credit," Andersen told me, "He said in effect, 'I got elected as a Democrat, and I'm not going to change parties.'"

So what about Jim Jeffords, the Vermonter who left the Republican Party in 2001, briefly sending the Senate majority to Democrats? Jeffords had been subject to bizarre levels of abuse. When he wouldn't go along with one of Bush's tax cuts, Republicans threatened retaliation against Vermont's dairy farmers. If anyone had a right to break away, it was Jeffords. And still, Republicans angry at the move have a point.

Lieberman has suffered no unusual cruelties at the hands fellow Democrats. Renomination, after all, is not an entitlement: Primary challenges are part of our democracy. And when Lieberman lost the primary to Ned Lamont, his Democratic colleagues' first duty was to honor the will of their voters. Connecticut's other Democratic senator, Christopher Dodd -- who had backed Lieberman in the primary -- properly moved his support to the chosen candidate. Dodd owes Lieberman no apology.

Jon Tester of Montana and Missouri's Claire McCaskill are probably more at odds with prevailing Democratic orthodoxy than is Lieberman. But you don't hear Maine Republican Susan Collins saying about them what she said about her friend from Connecticut -- that "he is key to which party controls the Senate" and that "Democrats need him more than he needs them."

Perhaps it's boundless Northeast narcissism, but in fact, every Democrat and independent in the Senate is equally "key." That the Heartlanders dispense with the dramatics and go about their work is a tribute to their ego-control. As Nelson dryly told C-SPAN, "I feel very comfortable where I am, and I'm able to work on both sides of the aisle to get things done." That's what a bipartisan Democrat should sound like.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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