How do you solve a problem like Joe Lieberman?

A great debate between Rachel Maddow and Evan Bayh lays out the stakes, for both sides.

Published November 14, 2008 4:25AM (EST)

I've been pretty convinced that the Democratic Senate leadership needs to strip Sen. Joe Lieberman of his role as Homeland Security chairman. Below is a great debate between Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, whatever side you're on. Bayh told Maddow that Lieberman "needs to apologize" for his attacks on Barack Obama during the campaign, and says Senate Democrats can "take away his chairmanship" if he undermines Obama's administration in his leadership role. But he says a "bitter" Lieberman who leaves the Senate (to be replaced by Connecticut's Republican governor) or caucuses with Republicans is worse for Democrats than a turncoat senator who remains in place.

Whatever you think about Lieberman, it's amazing to have someone like Maddow interrogating the Evan Bayhs of the world. Here's the interview:

MADDOW: You have been outspoken of Senator Lieberman keeping his role as chair of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Why do you think he's the best Democrat for that job at this point?

BAYH: I don't think this is about Joe Lieberman, Rachel. I think this is about maximizing our chances of making the changes that we need in America, maximizing the chances that President-elect Obama will meet those expectations you referred to by addressing the challenges that we face that you also reported on just a few moments ago. And let me explain to you what I mean. If this was just about Joe Lieberman and the things he said in the campaign, well, I'd say we'll let it go. I mean, if people want to settle scores, fine. I mean, he's a big guy, he can live with the consequences of his actions.

But one of two things will be likely to happen if we were to kick him out of his chairmanship. No. 1, he might very well decide to just resign from the Senate. You know, he probably would not want to be a person without a home, wandering the hallways without any influence of any kind. And Connecticut has a Republican governor, who would appoint a pure Republican to that seat, who would vote against the wishes of the president-elect and the Democratic caucus, you know, the vast, vast majority of the time. That's No. 1.

No. 2, Lieberman, Joe Lieberman might decide to stay and be embittered. And what would happen there would be from time to time, we have close votes. You've been reporting on the Alaska race and the Minnesota race and the Georgia race. We could be at 58, 59, maybe even 60 votes. Every two or three or four months, there's going to be a critically important vote, very close, every vote will count. And it might come down to one vote.

Now, if Senator Lieberman has a strong view, he'll vote his conscience, but if he's conflicted, frankly, you know, doesn't really know what to do, and we've exacted revenge on him, I suspect we could probably expect the same in return. That's really not where we want to go. Let's see if we can move this in a better direction.

And the final thing I'd say is, if he does retain his chairmanship, we still exert oversight over him and control over him. He doesn't have the ability to just do whatever he wants. The caucus still has the right to remove him from that position at any time if he starts going off on some kind of tangent.

So I simply think it maximizes the chances of getting progressive policies a better outcome if we have a Joe Lieberman, who is a little reticent, who apologizes for the things that he said that were way over the line, and instead is trying to do the right thing, instead of an embittered Joe Lieberman or a Republican replacement who will not be with us any of the time.

MADDOW: Is it not setting a strange precedent, though, for somebody to have not only campaigned against the nominee of his party but also to have campaigned against other Democratic Senate candidates and for Republicans, and to have honestly not only campaigned for his friend John McCain but also really deliberately against Barack Obama -- as you said, going, I think, quite over the line in terms of some of his criticism.

Is it not setting a strange precedent that he essentially gets to set the terms on which he stays in the caucus? He's said he will bolt the caucus if he doesn't get to hold on to his chairmanship. It seems weird that he should be the guy driving the bargain at this point, particularly when he's sort of politicized homeland security in order to make political points this year.

BAYH: Well, it is unusual territory. And you know, I was on another national show, one of the Sunday programs sitting right next to him, when he basically said that Barack Obama was for defeat in Iraq. And I had to cut him off and say, Joe, that's not true. I mean, he said things that were simply unacceptable, and I think he needs to apologize for that. And the question for us, then, Rachel, is how do we move on from here and maximize the chances of us getting good things done for the country, for your viewers. And I think the best way to do that is to look to the future rather than to just exact revenge for the past.

Now, at the same time, you have got to expect an apology, a sincere apology, and you have got to keep -- to tell him, look, we're going to give you a chance here. But if you don't do the right things as chairman, if, you know, we see any continuation of this kind of behavior, well, then, at that point, you know, the game is up at that point.

MADDOW: But the game would be up in the sense that he would get stripped of his leadership positions?

BAYH: Of the chairmanship, yes. You've got to remember, we have the right to change chairmen at any time during the session, and you know, we would expect him to conduct himself in that capacity, as someone who was supportive of the administration and did not certainly conduct himself in a way that reflected some of those comments, which I strongly disagreed with at the time, and still do disagree with.

MADDOW: Senator Bayh, do you think that there are going to be major issues -- major divisions within the Democratic caucus on issues of national security and homeland security moving forward? I mean, one of the things about Joe Lieberman's chairmanship is that he, in the past couple of years, has been a real contrast with his colleague in the House, his counterpart in the House, Henry Waxman, who heads the Government Affairs Committee there, in terms of what he's been willing to investigate. Joe Lieberman didn't investigate the government's response to Katrina or the Blackwater shootings in Iraq or anything like that. Are there going to be real interparty divisions on security issues, or do you see a united front going forward?

BAYH: Well, I would hope we would have a united front. And you know, if the caucus and the committee feels that there are areas worthy of investigation -- and you mentioned two that I think would warrant investigation -- then there should ... one would need to go forward, regardless of what the chairman happens to think. And we have the power to demand that sort of thing.

But I do hope, Rachel, we have just come through a tough campaign. We have major issues that we face, real challenges -- healthcare, education, the environment, getting out of Iraq -- a lot of things that we need to do. I would hope we would have the maximum amount of unity addressing those things. And I honestly think -- you know, look, we can take away his chairmanship. That's something we have the right to do. What you will have at that point is either someone who may very well resign or someone who's embittered, and if, you know, all else being equal, might not be with us on some of these key votes. I honestly think we have a better chance to get unity for the kind of policies that you would probably support, most Democrats would probably support, if we try and have some reconciliation here rather than resorting to revenge right off the bat. You always have that option if things don't seem to be working out very well.

MADDOW: You're giving me a great prompt to ask Senator Lieberman to come deliver that apology on this show. So thank you for that. And thank you for -- sorry, go ahead.

BAYH: Issue the invitation. And by the way, congratulations on being No. 7. In the United States Senate -- in the United States Senate, that would be right up there.

MADDOW: I would be fighting it out with Lieberman at this point, I know.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections