How Will America Remember Joe Lieberman: Connecticut’s Independent Senator

With his entire extended family behind him and a crowd of several hundred supporters in front of him, Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman took the podium at a hotel in Stamford, Connecticut on January 19 to announce he would not seek reelection in 2012.[i] Lieberman, 68, has had a tumultuous career in the Senate over the past twenty four years. Liberals say he is a traitor while conservatives see him as an occasional, albeit untrustworthy, ally. So when Americans reflect upon the four-term senator and former vice presidential candidate, how will he be remembered?

Two viewpoints have developed in response this question. The traditional take on Lieberman paints him as a politician no one on either side of the political aisle can trust, an easy conclusion to reach about Lieberman given his history in the Senate. New York Times’ writer Gail Collins argues that Congress relies on political parties, in part, for organizational efficiency. Sometimes, she says, politicians obviously need to take an independent stance, but Lieberman has failed to do so with humility, “if you’re continually admiring yourself as you walk away from your group, eventually people are going to feel an irresistible desire to trip you.”[ii]

Many of Lieberman’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate feel the same way about his party (dis)loyalty. One of the more obvious and deeper betrayals Lieberman dealt to Democrats came during the 2008 Presidential Election. Most Democrats divided their support amongst senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Lieberman, on the other hand, surprised everyone by walking on stage at the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota to endorse Senator John McCain for president. Democrats were furious.

After the election, Lieberman nearly lost his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. In the end, however, Democrats allowed him to remain chairman in order to avoid losing Lieberman as a political ally while also trying to dodge future legislative conflict.[iii] This did not last long.

The recent debate over health care reform was a major point of contention between Senate Democrats and Lieberman. The healthcare reform bill was moving through the Senate on a party line basis. If one Democratic senator decided to ally with the unified Republican effort to filibuster the bill, it would have stalled. Lieberman was strongly opposed to the public option that was included. He said, “I think [the public option] is such a mistake that I would use the power I have as a single senator to stop a final vote.”[iv] This sent the message that he would join the Republican efforts to filibuster the bill if the provision was included in it. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, seeing no other option, caved and stripped the provision so the bill could move forward.

Connecticut politicians are not known for following political norms. While many states seem to be swept up in the polarizing political environment that has been developing across the country, Connecticut has been trying to avoid the hysteria. This can be seen in the recent election of Richard Blumenthal to the other Senate seat in Connecticut. Blumenthal was campaigning against Republican challenger Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. McMahon’s campaign was built upon a fiscal conservative platform.

While mirroring platforms assisted Republicans in winning several congressional seats across the nation, it was not enough for McMahon, and Blumenthal won by a twelve-point margin. Bill Curry, a former Democratic candidate for governor summed up the abnormality of Connecticut politics by saying, “Connecticut, for lots of reasons, has proved itself almost immune not just to the kind of extremism that’s overtaken the Republican Party nationally, but to extremism from both political parties…Sarah Palin’s endorsement of almost anyone in Connecticut would end their campaign.”[v]

Lieberman was no exception to this rule and that is why he is still in the Senate today. After being defeated for the Democratic nomination by Ned Lamont, a political neophyte, Lieberman campaigned as an independent, solidified a centrist stance, and won a fourth term mostly with the assistance of Republican voters.[vi]

The second argument about Lieberman describes him as never having any real party loyalty beyond organizational purposes. This more favorable perspective has been championed by former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards in an article he wrote in The Atlantic. In it he bluntly opposes Collins’ opinion. Edwards paints Lieberman as an ideologue who is a truly independent politician. He says, “Lieberman is … the kind of member of Congress we should all hope for; one who decides issues on their merits, not party dictates, and who listens to his constituents, not party insiders.”[vii] There is a considerable amount of evidence to support Edwards’ claim.

Consider Congress’ attempt to repeal the government’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which denied homosexual men and women from serving openly in the armed forces, during the lame duck session in December. The repeal of the 16-year-old law was a cause championed by liberals and President Obama, but faced serious opposition from the conservatives in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was unable to break a Republican filibuster of the bill that had the repeal provision in it. Nevertheless, moments after a failed vote that seemed to all but ensure the repeal was dead, Lieberman, alongside Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine, said he would introduce a stand-alone bill that would repeal the policy. A week later, the bill had passed with the aid of eight Republican senators[viii]. This could not have been done without Lieberman’s leadership and left Democrats cautiously thankful to him.

Is Lieberman a partisan defector or an independent ideologue that looks at each issue on his own accord rather than on a partisan basis? He has always been a centrist and willing to cross party leadership. That, in turn, has made him a target on both sides. Although clearly he does not care that much for Democrats or partisan politics in general, Lieberman’s retirement is a gift to Democrats. By deciding not to run for reelection, Democrats have a significantly higher chance of retaining the senate seat.[ix] This situation is extremely similar to the one his former colleague, Senator Chris Dodd, found himself in a year ago when he decided not to run. By doing this, Dodd bolstered the chances that Democrats would retain the Senate seat, which they did in the end.[x]

Although there is no right answer to what kind of politician Lieberman is, the most realistic conclusion is that he falls into a middle ground. Americans will likely remember him as someone who did look at each issue individually and formed his opinions on his own. They will also remember him as a politician who fell out of love with his former political party after it fell out of love with him. Lieberman has learned over the years that Congress may not value centrism as much as he does, and time and time again he is reminded of that as he alone at the Senate’s podium.

[i] John Christoffersen and Susan Haigh, “Joe Liberman Retiring In 2012. The Huffington Post, January 19, 2011. Acessed February 8, 2011.

[ii] Gail Collins, “Goodbye to a Guy Named Joe.” The New York Times, January 19, 2011. Accessed January 24, 2011.

[iii]Carol Hulse “Democrats Gain as Stephens Loses Race.” The New York Times, November 18, 2008. Accessed January 24, 2011.

[iv] Jason Plautz, “Sen. Joe Lieberman, I/D-Conn.” National Journal, November 21, 2009. Accessed January 24, 2011.–20091121?mrefid=site_search.

[v] Peter Applebome, “Amid a Tea Party Whirlwind, Connecticut Is an Island of Calm.” The New York Times, November 3, 2010. Accessed February 9, 2011.

[vi] David Halbfinger and Raymond Hernandez. “No Fifth Term for Lieberman.” The New York Times, January 18, 2011. Accessed January 26, 2011.

[vii] Mickey Edwards, “Don’t Gloat Over Lieberman’s Exit.” The Atlantic, January 20, 2011. Accessed January 26, 2011.

[viii] Carl Huse, “Senate Repeals Ban Against Openly Gay Military Personnel.” The New York Times, December 18, 2010. Accessed January 26, 2011.

[ix] David Halbfinger and Raymond Hernandez. “No Fifth Term for Lieberman.” The New York Times, January 18, 2011. Accessed January 26, 2011.

[x] Alex Isenstadt and Josh Kraushaar. “Sen. Chris Dodd won’t seek reelection.” Politico, January 6, 2010. Accessed January 26, 2011.

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