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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

March 28: RIP Joe Lieberman, a Democrat Who Lost His Way

I was sorry to learn of the sudden death of 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman. But his long and stormy career did offer some important lessons about party loyalty, which I wrote about at New York:

Joe Lieberman was active in politics right up to the end. The former senator was the founding co-chair of the nonpartisan group No Labels, which is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign on behalf of a yet-to-be-identified bipartisan “unity ticket.” Lieberman did not live to see whether No Labels will run a candidate. He died on Wednesday at 82 due to complications from a fall. But this last political venture was entirely in keeping with his long career as a self-styled politician of the pragmatic center, which often took him across party boundaries.

Lieberman’s first years in Connecticut Democratic politics as a state legislator and then state attorney general were reasonably conventional. He was known for a particular interest in civil rights and environmental protection, and his identity as an observant Orthodox Jew also drew attention. But in 1988, the Democrat used unconventional tactics in his challenge to Republican U.S. senator Lowell Weicker. Lieberman positioned himself to the incumbent’s right on selected issues, like Ronald Reagan’s military operations against Libya and Grenada. He also capitalized on longtime conservative resentment of his moderate opponent, winning prized endorsements from William F. and James Buckley, icons of the right. Lieberman won the race narrowly in an upset.

Almost immediately, Senator Lieberman became closely associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. The group of mostly moderate elected officials focused on restoring the national political viability of a party that had lost five of the six previous presidential elections; it soon produced a president in Bill Clinton. Lieberman became probably the most systematically pro-Clinton (or in the parlance of the time, “New Democrat”) member of Congress. This gave his 1998 Senate speech condemning the then-president’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal as “immoral” and “harmful” a special bite. He probably did Clinton a favor by setting the table for a reprimand that fell short of impeachment and removal, but without question, the narrative was born of Lieberman being disloyal to his party.

Perhaps it was his public scolding of Clinton that convinced Al Gore, who was struggling to separate himself from his boss’s misconduct, to lift Lieberman to the summit of his career. Gore tapped the senator to be his running mate in the 2000 election, making him the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate of a major party. He was by all accounts a disciplined and loyal running mate, at least until that moment during the Florida recount saga when he publicly disclaimed interest in challenging late-arriving overseas military ballots against the advice of the Gore campaign. You could argue plausibly that the ticket would have never been in a position to potentially win the state without Lieberman’s appeal in South Florida to Jewish voters thrilled by his nomination to become vice-president. But many Democrats bitter about the loss blamed Lieberman.

As one of the leaders of the “Clintonian” wing of his party, Lieberman was an early front-runner for the 2004 presidential nomination. A longtime supporter of efforts to topple Saddam Hussein, Lieberman had voted to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq, like his campaign rivals John Kerry and John Edwards and other notable senators including Hillary Clinton. Unlike most other Democrats, though, Lieberman did not back off this position when the Iraq War became a deadly quagmire. Ill-aligned with his party to an extent he did not seem to perceive, his presidential campaign quickly flamed out, but not before he gained enduring mockery for claiming “Joe-mentum” from a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.

Returning to the Senate, Lieberman continued his increasingly lonely support for the Iraq War (alongside other heresies to liberalism, such as his support for private-school education vouchers in the District of Columbia). In 2006, Lieberman drew a wealthy primary challenger, Ned Lamont, who soon had a large antiwar following in Connecticut and nationally. As the campaign grew heated, President George W. Bush gave his Democratic war ally a deadly gift by embracing him and kissing his cheek after the State of the Union Address. This moment, memorialized as “The Kiss,” became central to the Lamont campaign’s claim that Lieberman had left his party behind, and the challenger narrowly won the primary. However, Lieberman ran against him in the general election as an independent, with significant back-channel encouragement from the Bush White House (which helped prevent any strong Republican candidacy). Lieberman won a fourth and final term in the Senate with mostly GOP and independent votes. He was publicly endorsed by Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, among others from what had been the enemy camp.

The 2006 repudiation by his party appeared to break something in Lieberman. This once-happiest of happy political warriors, incapable of holding a grudge, seemed bitter, or at the very least gravely offended, even as he remained in the Senate Democratic Caucus (albeit as formally independent). When his old friend and Iraq War ally John McCain ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, Lieberman committed a partisan sin by endorsing him. His positioning between the two parties, however, still cost him dearly: McCain wanted to choose him as his running mate, before the Arizonan’s staff convinced him that Lieberman’s longtime pro-choice views and support for LGBTQ rights would lead to a convention revolt. The GOP nominee instead went with a different “high-risk, high-reward” choice: Sarah Palin.

After Barack Obama’s victory over Lieberman’s candidate, the new Democratic president needed every Democratic senator to enact the centerpiece of his agenda, the Affordable Care Act. He got Lieberman’s vote — but only after the senator, who represented many of the country’s major private-insurance companies, forced the elimination of the “public option” in the new system. It was a bitter pill for many progressives, who favored a more robust government role in health insurance than Obama had proposed.

By the time Lieberman chose to retire from the Senate in 2012, he was very near to being a man without a party, and he reflected that status by refusing to endorse either Obama or Mitt Romney that year. By then, he was already involved in the last great project of his political career, No Labels. He did, with some hesitation, endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. But his long odyssey away from the yoke of the Democratic Party had largely landed him in a nonpartisan limbo. Right up until his death, he was often the public face of No Labels, particularly after the group’s decision to sponsor a presidential ticket alienated many early supporters of its more quotidian efforts to encourage bipartisan “problem-solving” in Congress.

Some will view Lieberman as a victim of partisan polarization, and others as an anachronistic member of a pro-corporate, pro-war bipartisan elite who made polarization necessary. Personally, I will remember him as a politician who followed — sometimes courageously, sometimes foolishly — a path that made him blind to the singular extremism that one party has exhibited throughout the 21st century, a development he tried to ignore to his eventual marginalization. But for all his flaws, I have no doubt Joe Lieberman remained until his last breath committed to the task he often cited via the Hebrew term tikkun olam: repairing a broken world.

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