Joe Lieberman: A senator with 2 parties, or none

Some say that when President Bush, left, embraced and kissed Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., after the 2005 State of the Union address, many Connecticut Democratic voters could no longer support him.

Associated Press

Some say that when President Bush, left, embraced and kissed Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., after the 2005 State of the Union address, many Connecticut Democratic voters could no longer support him.

WASHINGTON — If there’s an upside to being abandoned by your friends during tough times, it’s that you no longer owe them anything.

So with this in mind, the man who as a Democrat came a few votes shy of becoming vice president of the United States in 2000, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, and who ensures the Democrats’ control of the U.S. Senate plans to spend a good chunk of his fall campaigning on behalf of Sen. John McCain — a Republican.

Affable and instantly recognizable, with his sleepy eyes and ample forehead, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, 66, is the nation’s most prominent Jewish politician and a bona fide hit on the stump, especially with the early-bird special crowd in South Florida.

He also has emerged as one of McCain’s top advocates in the presidential race, lending credibility to McCain’s pledge of bipartisan cooperation and appealing to older Jewish voters, an important Democratic voting bloc with which the Democratic candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama, has struggled.

In town hall meetings and on national TV, Lieberman has been praising McCain while criticizing Obama, particularly over Iraq, as he did in South Florida last week.

Although he calls himself an “independent Democrat,” Lieberman tends to vote just like a run-of-the-mill Democrat. He’s considered part of the Democratic team in the Senate, and, unless presidential politics or Iraq policy are on the menu, he joins Democrats for their weekly policy luncheon. He even chairs a high-profile committee, courtesy of the Democratic leadership.

So his support of McCain is giving many Democrats fits. “Surprised,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

“A difficult situation,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

“I wish he hadn’t,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Lieberman shrugs. He didn’t turn his back on the Democrats, he says. They turned their backs on him.

“Of course I was disappointed,” he said.

• • •

You might say it started with a kiss.

In 2005, the war in Iraq was emerging as a major issue in the upcoming congressional elections. Democrats across the country were calling for the Bush administration to set goals for the Iraqi government and set a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.

Except, that is, for Lieberman.

One of the reasons Democrats had considered him a good choice for Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 was his independent streak, as well as a record on foreign affairs and national defense.

Back in 1991, he railed against the first President Bush for not deposing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. In 2001, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he sent a letter to President Bush urging him to target Iraq next.

And so he remained cheerfully supportive of the mission in Iraq even as support among congressional Democrats — and many Americans — began to evaporate, becoming, in effect, a Democratic spokesman for the White House on the war.

Bush wasn’t shy about his appreciation. After delivering the State of the Union address in 2005, he hugged Lieberman and gave him a big kiss. For liberals in Connecticut and elsewhere who were chafing at his support for the war, the kiss made tangible their frustrations.

Within a year, he was facing a strong challenge in the Democratic primary from Ned Lamont, a cable TV executive and political newcomer.

• • •

At first, Lieberman’s Democratic colleagues rallied to him. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, already a favorite for the presidential nomination, sent him $10,000.

Lautenberg and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut stumped for him.

So did Obama, the rising star from Illinois, who did Lieberman the favor of attending the state party’s annual fundraising dinner — where Lieberman was booed. He also gave Lieberman’s campaign $5,000.

But Connecticut Democrats had had enough of his support for the war and President Bush. Lamont, backed heavily by anti­war groups like MoveOn.org, won the primary with 52 percent of the vote.

“Look, I am of course disappointed by the results, but I am not discouraged,” Lieberman said at his concession speech. “I am disappointed not just because I lost, but because the old politics of partisan polarization won today. For the sake of our state, our country and my party, I cannot and will not let that result stand.”

And he didn’t. He collected the 7,500 signatures needed to run as an independent. His colleagues turned their affections to Lamont.

Obama gave Lamont $4,200, federal campaign finance records show. Clinton gave him $5,000. So did Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. So did Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Even Dodd, Lieberman’s longtime partner in the Senate, endorsed Lamont.

“After Joe lost and the other guy won the nomination, I had no other choice but to support the nominee of the Democratic Party,” Dodd said recently. “You can’t have a process by which you encourage people to enter it, then turn around and say I’m sorry, I don’t like the results.”

So, for the first time in his career, Lieberman ran in the general election without the Democrats behind him. He won easily, beating Lamont 49 percent to 40 percent, thanks to strong support from Republicans and independents. (The Republican candidate got just 10 percent.)

Lieberman returned to the Senate with a self-styled party affiliation, “independent Democrat,” while his Democratic colleagues struggled to make amends. They gave him a standing ovation his first day back. They gave him hugs and slapped his back. They gave him the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Reid declared hopefully, “We’re all family.”

• • •

In politics, a member of Congress has no greater responsibility to his “family” than to support its candidate for president. But by supporting an upstart over someone they knew and had worked with for years, the Democrats gave Lieberman license to break that covenant. His decision to support McCain was a disappointment for Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and an old, close friend of Lieberman’s. But he understands it.

“He’s a human being, and he’s a decent man, he’s a good man, and he believes as I do that political loyalty is important,” said From, who was with Lieberman on the night he lost the primary. “If the Democrats had all stuck with him, he may have felt an obligation not to do that.”

Lieberman frequently says his support for McCain is a reflection of his friendship and affinity for McCain, not a reflection on Obama.

He and his wife, Hadassah, socialize with John and Cindy McCain and have visited their ranch in Sedona, Ariz. They both have a record of bucking their parties on big issues. They became close friends in the early 1990s, when together they pushed for U.S. intervention in Bosnia, and have worked together on many bills, including one to address global warming.

Yet he recently has irked Democrats by becoming more critical of Obama, something several Democrats, including Sen. Nelson, have asked him not to do. At a synagogue near Miami last week, Lieberman criticized Obama for wanting to leave Iraq and opposing offshore oil drilling.

Because of this, some liberal groups are urging Democratic leaders to boot him from their ranks, to strip him of his committee chairmanship. But Democrats hold just 51 seats in the Senate, including Lieberman’s, to the Republicans’ 49. Should he join the Republicans, the split would be 50-50 — and with Vice President Dick Cheney as tie-breaker, Republicans would win control.

For his part, Lieberman acknowledges that losing the support of his friends in the Senate and Democratic Party has given him license to do what he wants. In addition to campaigning and leading Citizens for McCain, he has given $10,000 to Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on his homeland security committee, who faces a tough re-election fight against a Democratic House member.

He downplays persistent chatter that he’ll be McCain’s running mate, but he hasn’t ruled out speaking at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in September.

“I remember every day that I was elected as an independent, not by my choice, but by the fact that the Democratic Party chose not to renominate me,” Lieberman said. “I made two big promises in the general election: that if I was re-elected, I would always try to do what I believe is right and that I would work across party lines to get things done. In supporting John McCain, I think I’m keeping that promise in both regards.”

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Q&A

Sen. Joseph Lieberman

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a self-styled independent Democrat from Connecticut, recently spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about his support of Republican Sen. John McCain for president and his strained relationship with the Democratic Party.

Why do you support Sen. John McCain over Sen. Barack Obama?

“Not only is McCain ready to be commander in chief from Day One, but he’s better by his record to deal with the big problems. ... I think John McCain has a strong, longer-time record of support generally for democracies in the world, and therefore for Israel. I think also he has an overall approach to the Middle East, including Iran, that’s strong, stronger — he’s better prepared to be the type of president that America needs.”

You have grown increasingly distant from the Democratic Party since running as the vice presidential candidate in 2000. Why?

“The Democratic Party is not the party I joined under President Kennedy, which was very internationalist, very strong on defense policy, and also believed in economic openness — in other words, trade. ... You trade to create jobs. So on stuff like that, I am unfortunately disagreeing with the party, and of course McCain and I, we agree on all those things.”

Then why associate with the Democrats?

“Because I’ve been a life-long Democrat, I agree on a lot of things with Democrats. I’m disappointed in the things I disagree with the Democrats on, but for now, I think I’ve got a responsibility to stay and fight for what I think the Democratic Party has meant in its best times.”

And you think a McCain presidency would help?

“I hope so. Because I know one thing about John, as I’ve watched him as a legislator, he wants to get things done. ... He’s willing to work across party lines. He knows when to compromise. ...

“The most important thing to me is we’ve got to get the country back together. ... And I just think he has a record of doing that, and with all respect, Sen. Obama doesn’t have the same record of reaching across party lines. Which also means you’ve got to be willing to take on members of your own party when you don’t agree with them.

“Maybe that’s why McCain and I have worked together — maybe that’s part of why we work together so well. He’s a Republican, I’m a Democrat, but we know that’s only the beginning of it.”

Joe Lieberman: A senator with 2 parties, or none 07/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 12:38am]

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