The Lieberman Hostage Scenario: Barbara Boxer Explained

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

Arianna and others are puzzled by Barbara Boxer's support for Joe Lieberman (although Jane reports she may be hedging). Other Senate Dems are speaking up for him, too. I think I can explain it: The Senate Dems may be concerned about what I call the "Jeffords Scenario."

Feel free to ignore their kind words for Joe: he's probably just holding them hostage with memories of June 2001.

The 2000 elections left the Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, giving Dick Cheney the tie-breaking vote as Senate President. (Yes, he was "the decider.") Six months later Jim Jeffords switched his affiliation from Republican to Independent, giving the Dems a 50-49 majority and throwing the Senate to them.

The same scenario could happen in 2007. I haven't seen the state-by-state polling, nor would it be very reliable at this stage, but it's reasonable to assume that any change in control of the Senate in 2008 would occur by a slim margin.

If Lieberman runs as an Independent and wins, he may hold the balance of Senatorial power. One scenario would leave the Senate with 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans -- and Lieberman. If Lieberman joins with the Democrats, they regain control. If he becomes a Republican - they don't.

Senate Dems have no doubt seen the Connecticut polls that show Lieberman winning handily as an Independent in a three-way race (one poll gives him a clear majority of 56%). I don't put much credence in these polls - the voters haven't gotten to know Lamont yet - but they would certainly strike fear into some Washington hearts.

I wrote the other day that Lieberman seems to be spinning his campaign so that it will inflict the maximum damage possible on the Democrats, and provides the maximum benefit for the GOP, if he doesn't win the primary. His edgy (and surprisingly nasty) performance in today's debate seemed calculated for the same effect.

Under the "Jeffords scenario" the GOP will offer the Senator from Connecticut anything his little heart desires. What's your pleasure, Joe? Two years in the Senate, running any committee you want, and then Secretary of Defense under McCain? You got it. Oh, and got a country you'd like to see us invade?

If the Democrats are afraid of this scenario (and they should be), then they're scrambling around, trying to find the right balance between being loyal Democrats and placating Joe so that he doesn't leave under the Jeffords Scenario.

It's "Dog Day Afternoon" down in the Democratic Caucus - and Joe's shouting "Attica! Attica!" with each GOP-friendly remark.

I'm not defending Barbara Boxer or any other progressive Democrat that says nice things about Lieberman. What I am saying is that there may be tactical reasons for it. I'm saying don't take it too seriously.

Connecticut Dems (and I was one, once) should realize that the praise they may hear for Joe from his fellow politicians may not mean what it seems to mean. The Jeffords Scenario might help them understand that these kind words probably aren't sincere.

And that should make it easier for them to vote for Ned Lamont.