LIEBERMAN GETS A SLAP ON THE WRIST…. Regrettably, the Senate Democratic caucus meeting went exactly as expected this morning.

Senate Democrats refused Tuesday to strip Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) of his prized chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

After months of acrimony between him and his former party, Democrats ultimately decided that taking away Lieberman’s gavel would give Republicans an extra vote next Congress.

Lieberman instead will lose chairmanship of a global warming subcommittee on the Environment and Public Works Commission as a rebuke for supporting John McCain and attacking Barack Obama during the presidential campaign.

Roll Call added, “Senators approved the motion by a resounding vote of 42-13.” Because the vote was held by secret ballot, we don’t know which Democrats were part of the 13.

There will no doubt be plenty of discussion about how and why Lieberman got away with his offensive conduct with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, but I think there are a couple of points to keep in mind.

First, in retrospect, as soon as the option of kicking Lieberman out of the Democratic caucus was taken off the table, the center of gravity shifted. Initially, taking away Lieberman’s committee chairmanship was the compromise/middle-ground between two extremes (giving him the boot and doing nothing). Once Democrats agreed that they preferred to keep Lieberman in the caucus, all of a sudden, stripping him of his gavel became the new extreme position, and the EPW subcommittee became the new “compromise.” The shift obviously benefited Lieberman.

Second, let’s pause to appreciate just how smart Lieberman is. In this case, I don’t mean that as a compliment. It was inconceivable that if Obama won in a veritable landslide, while the Senate Democratic caucus grew by (at least) six seats, that Lieberman would not only get off scot-free, but would also be in a position to dictate to Democrats, without any leverage at all, which outcomes he found “unacceptable.” If someone had predicted this scenario to me a month ago, I could have found it ridiculous. And yet, here we are.

Josh Marshall had a post back in June explaining, even before some of Lieberman’s most outrageous conduct, that Lieberman was burning bridges that couldn’t be rebuilt. “My assumption is that after the November election, regardless of the outcome of the presidential campaign, Joe will be stripped of his chairmanship,” Josh said. I agreed wholeheartedly at the time. It was a no-brainer.

Except, it wasn’t. Lieberman knows Senate Democrats better than Democratic voters do. My friend Matt told me via email yesterday, “If Lieberman ends up keeping his gavel on Homeland Security, I think we need to stop for a moment and recognize him as the smartest politician in Washington. He will have correctly made a bet about the fortitude of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate and he will have been right, against all apparent odds.”

This is a decision, I suspect, that the caucus will regret in the not-too-distant future. It’s predicated on the assumption that Lieberman really is a Democrat at heart.

He’s not.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.