The possibility I broached yesterday that Joseph Lieberman might emerge from his current struggles more powerful than ever derives from a somewhat obscure study in finite mathematics called voting power.
In a situation whose outcome is to be decided by a vote, a participant's voting power is the percent of possible vote configurations in which his is the deciding vote -- in other words, the relative frequency with which he would effectively pick the winner. Even static voting tableaus can be fascinating in this regard. Consider, for example, a committee of four persons, whose chairman is empowered to break ties. The chairman's voting power is three times that of any other committee member, a result that's not intuitively obvious from the simple statement of the rules.
Voting-power studies get really interesting when time, coalition dynamics, and horsetrading are included. If the stakes in a given contest are perceived to be high, as the hour of decision approaches the price of a "swing" vote can rise dramatically, which is why persons of, let us say, flexible convictions tend to keep their options open until the last possible moment. Other things being equal, the longer the bidding war goes on, the higher the final bid will be.
It's that "other things being equal" part that bedevils analysts of Congressional hijinx. For the bidding never really ends, nor is any person's vote irretrievably locked down until it's actually been cast. As the price of a swing vote rises, persons whom one had deemed committed might reassess their positions, and decide to "put themselves on the market." The political rationale is always expressed in terms of relative gains, losses, and priorities: "Well, yes, I'd have to trade away my opposition to X, but look at all the concessions I could get on Y, Z, and Q!" The increase in the supply of votes for sale would depress their price, as an increase in supply always does.
You might not think like that. Politicians do. Never doubt it. Whatever his party alignment, religious affiliation, or avowed political ideology, one must always assume that Legislator Smith can be bought, if the price is right.
We're likely to get some examples of this in the coming fracas over Ambassador John Bolton. Objectively, Bolton is everything one could wish for in an ambassador: candid about his views, fearless before any and all opposition, and devoted to representing American interests. But Bolton is a Bush Administration nominee, and will therefore be fought bitterly by Senate Democrats despite his evident merits. It's odds-on that the excessively spending-friendly Republican caucus will attempt to buy a few Democratic votes with offers to logroll on other subjects. If the game becomes obvious, quite a few Democrats, who have no real objection to Ambassador Bolton, will offer to break ranks for the right subvention.
Any bets on where the mass media will locate the odium for such unprincipled dealing?
Which brings us back to Joseph Lieberman, the only Democrat to speak strongly against the conduct of Bill Clinton during Clinton's trial before the Senate. Senator Lieberman was scathing about Clinton's moral deficits...yet he voted to acquit the president, who had admitted lying to a grand jury, to Congress, and to the American people.
Media profiles of the senator have unanimously praised his moral seriousness and integrity. Perhaps different standards must be applied to politicians. But one cannot help wondering whether the GOP caucus failed to approach Lieberman, failed to meet his asking price, or whether the Clintons outbid them, with the payment to come at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. After all, there are no higher stakes than those in a removal trial before the Senate.