When Joe Lieberman ran as an independent in 2006 after losing the primary to Ned Lamont, Republicans flocked to his side to ensure Lieberman’s return to the Senate as the war in Iraq hit a critical stage.  Lieberman’s former party allowed him to retain his standing in the caucus after a bitter debate over punishing him for his defiance, and have been more or less at arm’s length from their 2000 VP nominee since.  Four years later, with Democrats losing ground in the midterms, Lieberman has suddenly become popular again, being wooed from both sides of the aisle in advance of the 2012 elections:

It got so bad two years ago between Joe Lieberman and Senate Democrats that he started skipping weekly caucus lunches because tensions were at a boil.

Now, Lieberman just might be one of the most popular senators in the lunchroom.

Along with other senior Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is quietly urging the Connecticut lawmaker to run for a fifth Senate term in 2012 — and to stick with the Democratic side of the aisle.

But Republicans are trying to get Lieberman to sit at their lunch table instead.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he’s engaged in “friendly banter” with Lieberman about joining the Republican Conference and running for the GOP nomination in 2012. Even the conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) — who famously said he’d rather have 30 Senate Republicans with pure conservative values than 60 without — said “we’d love to have him.”

Er … why? Other than purely process-oriented outcomes, Lieberman and DeMint seem as far from each other as some of the Republicans DeMint passively opposed in the 2010 primaries for not being conservative enough.  According to the Poole report of contested votes in this session of the Senate, Lieberman is more liberal than Claire McCaskill, James Webb, Bill Nelson and Ben Nelson — all of whom will run for re-election in 2012 as well, and whose seats DeMint will surely want to target with his PAC.  The Poole report for the 110th Session shows much the same result.  He votes more to the Left than Olympia Snowe, who certainly won’t get enthusiastic support from DeMint.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t reasons to like Lieberman.  He’s honest, for one thing, and he understands national security better than almost all of his colleagues on the other side of the aisle.  While his staunch support for the effort in Iraq has passed into the mainstream, that doesn’t mean we won’t face further crises and need a Lieberman among the Democrats to underscore its serious nature and need for firm response.  I’m happy to have Lieberman fill that seat for those reasons if Connecticut can’t elect a Republican.

But let’s not pretend that Lieberman is a Republican in practice.  He’s a moderate Democrat who is socially and fiscally liberal while being a hawk on defense.  The fact that the Democratic Party finds it difficult to tolerate a Lieberman doesn’t make him a Republican.  The nation might be better served to have Lieberman push his party away from its radical-progressive direction and realign itself with the center-right direction of the country, even if that means tougher times for the GOP.

Update: Lieberman was the VP nominee in 2000, not 2004; the “four years later” refers to the 2006 sniping.