Commentary Magazine

Going After Joe Lieberman

Both political parties wrestle with an inherent tension: balancing the desire for ideological coherence with the need to build a broad-based coalition that can win elections and form a governing majority. Although the mainstream media focus almost obsessively in this regard on the Republican party—dwelling on one stray conservative activist’s 10-point “purity test” (which was roundly rejected by nearly every elected official) and fixating on daily spats between radio talk-show hosts and elected Republicans who must cater to less-conservative constituents—the most vivid example of this phenomenon in recent political history comes from the Democratic party.

It was the Democratic Left that sought to drive Joseph I. Lieberman, a sitting senator and former vice-presidential candidate, from the party and from office because of his ideological heresy. In doing so—and in continuing its assault against him even after his successful re-election to the Senate in 2006—the Left helped highlight, if not hasten, the demise of its most ardently desired domestic policy goal: government-administered universal health care (the so-called public option). And in its ideological fervor to ostracize Lieberman, the Left exposed and widened fault lines in the Democratic party just in time for a critical Senate election that went disastrously for it.

Lieberman is an odd target for the Left. Pro-choice and politically liberal on an array of domestic issues, he has been a fixture in the Democratic party for four decades. There are Democratic politicians more conservative than Lieberman on contentious issues such as abortion, as well as some who have less distinguished records in pursuing their party’s domestic policy goals. He has, however, ever since his first Senate race in 1988, raised the ire of liberal purists. In that year, from his elected perch as Connecticut’s attorney general, Lieberman ran to the right of the liberal Republican Lowell Weicker Jr., with visible backing from conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr.

He was thereafter viewed with some suspicion as a political chameleon with friends on the “other side,” politicians and public figures who were anathema to his party’s base. If politicians, as the adage goes, are defined by their enemies, Democratic purists were chagrined to find out that they did not share a common roster of foes with Lieberman. And that would become increasingly problematic when ideological battle lines hardened during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies.

Lieberman’s advisers describe him as a representative of a political tradition that is largely extinct. He is an ideologically heterodox Democrat from the Northeast—liberal on social issues, moderate on economics, and hawkish on defense. He has favored enterprise zones (a zero-tax development policy that was a project of the late Republican Representative Jack Kemp), joined with the conservative William J. Bennett to combat the cultural sway of sex and violence in Hollywood entertainment, and is a supporter of school choice.

Yet he is expected to be an ally with the gay community on repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and is among those Senate Democrats leading efforts to pass far-reaching climate-control legislation. As the ranks of Northeastern liberals have thinned on the Republican side, he remains an anomaly: a politician whose vote is not predictable. He is, in essence, the Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Senate, the vote that is not “in the bag” and on whom the institution may often pivot, to the chagrin of both more ideologically consistent sides.

Nevertheless, Lieberman still was considered by most party insiders to be a safe and reliable vice-presidential pick for Al Gore in 2000. Showing his political adeptness and deeply disappointing conservatives who had come to rely on him as their token friend in the Democratic party, he smoothed over differences with liberal constituency groups on issues like affirmative action and school choice. In an appearance on PBS just before the convention that nominated him, he gracefully minimized his differences with Al Gore:

In the case of vouchers, for instance, yes, because of my concern about poor children being trapped in failing schools, I’ve supported demonstration test programs on vouchers, which would only be available to kids below a certain income level. But, you know, on a whole host of other areas, that have to do with education, I agree totally with Al—on needing to invest more in education, to focus in on the results of the system, have standards of accountability?.?.?.?

Arriving at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, he was even more solicitous of African-American Democrats, meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus and assuring them of his support for affirmative action and opposition to California’s anti-racial-preference measure, Proposition 209, about which he had previously spoken positively. The Washington Post reported on the August 16, 2000, meeting:

Lieberman said “there’s been misunderstanding” of his view of affirmative action, and said he had expressed support for California’s Proposition 209 based only on its language and not based on details of its implications. He said he later refused to sign a letter of endorsement. “I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action and I will support affirmative action,” he said, to applause. But he acknowledged differences with running mate Al Gore on the question of whether to use public money to help pupils attend private schools.

Following the ticket’s agonizing 2000 defeat,  Lieberman returned to the Senate and fell comfortably back into the Democratic caucus for a time. Over the next few years, he would vote against the Bush tax cuts and oppose Bush Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. He championed environmental legislation, favored gay rights, and was strongly pro-choice. He also made a short-lived, unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2004, signaling rather definitively that there was only so far he could go within a party that was wary of ideological nonconformity.

He was, up until 2006, in all but one respect within the mainstream of the Democratic Senate caucus. By 2006, however, that one issue had come to dominate the Democratic party: the war in Iraq. The war, which originally had been supported by half his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, by this point had become more than a policy issue. It had become an organizing principle, a clarion call for the Left to seize the party back from Clintonian moderates and a stick with which to beat President Bush. Groups like and blogs like the Daily Kos drew political inspiration from, and in turn propagated, an aggressive anti-war message.

Lieberman soon became the target of the Left’s venom as a Democrat (eventually the only prominent Democrat) giving aid and comfort to the Bush administration, one who was making the case for the war and for a robust national security in the tradition of John F. Kennedy and the late Democratic senator from Washington state Henry “Scoop” Jackson. This, the Left decided, was intolerable, and its forces rallied to the side of an unknown primary challenger named Ned Lamont, a wealthy communications executive and political outsider who embodied the strident anti-war message. On Lamont’s behalf the Left waged a virulent war on Lieberman, excoriating him on Left-leaning websites, heckling him at campaign events, and raising millions to drive the sole pro-Iraq-war Democrat from their ranks.

To a large extent the primary fight in Connecticut in 2006 became a debate over the direction of the Democratic party. Would it become a party devoid of hawks and devoted to retreat from an increasingly unpopular war, or would it remain home to a strain of internationalist, pro-defense Democrats who had been part of a bipartisan coalition with like-minded Republicans throughout the Cold War years? Lieberman explained in a New York magazine article:

“What kind of Democratic Party are we going to have?” he asks. “You’ve got to agree 100 percent, or you’re not a good Democrat.?.?.?.? Unless the party has room for people like me,” continues Lieberman, “unless the party begins to redeem some public confidence on issues of national security, we’re not going to elect a Democratic president or Congress ahead.”

But diversity of views was not what the Left or a majority of Democratic-primary voters had in mind. They were furiously battling the Bush administration over the Iraq war and engaged in a struggle within the Democratic party to shift from accommodation to confrontation. Each Lieberman speech or TV interview in defense of the war and the ouster of Saddam Hussein—and even a hug and kiss on the cheek from President Bush following the 2005 State of the Union speech—became fodder for the Left’s crusade.

Although the Iraq war was the match that lit the tinder box, Lieberman’s entire persona came to personify what the new Left railed against: a failure to defy and oppose the Bush administration at every turn. Not only did Lieberman’s public stance on the war rub the Left the wrong way, but his own religious bent and predilection to see public policy in moral tones aggravated it to no end as well. Lieberman first achieved national celebrity with a September 1998 speech from the Senate floor chastising then President Clinton’s behavior (expressing “deep disappointment and personal anger”) and calling for his censure. That, in addition to his campaign against media violence and sex-laced entertainment, led some on the secular Left (and in Hollywood, a key donor base for liberals) to see him as a sanctimonious enemy. He was, in short, the embodiment of much of what the Left was against. That he was also for much of their agenda (on abortion and the environment, for example) was often ignored.

After losing the primary to Lamont in August 2006, Lieberman ran as an independent—he called himself an “independent Democrat”—and won his general-election race by a comfortable margin, thereby surviving his near-death political experience. He returned to the Senate and retained his seniority and chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees. He was also assured by Senate Majority Harry Reid that he would serve as the 51st vote for the Democratic caucus. In the end, the Left was apoplectic that Lieberman had avoided “punishment” for his heresies.

Having stared down the Left in his own party, Lieberman was to a greater degree than ever liberated from partisan politics. He was no longer sensitive about avoiding public spats with Democratic party leaders or about hewing to the partisan line. And after all, his party and fellow senators had shown little or no loyalty to him in 2006, especially his old colleague and friend, fellow Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd. He owed the Democratic party nothing.

Indeed, in 2008, with nary a look back or sign of any remorse, he plunged into the presidential contest on behalf of the Republican nominee. He became one of the most visible supporters of Republican Senator John McCain’s presidential candidacy and was, by most accounts, McCain’s preferred pick for his running mate. No one doubted his fervent support of the Iraq surge and its most visible proponent, McCain; but plainly he also relished the opportunity to replay the arguments of the 2006 race. Following McCain’s defeat, Lieberman faced another round of calls from the Left to extract from him a pound of flesh. But again, he negotiated a deal with Reid, allowing him to retain his committee chairmanship and avoid any loss of seniority.

The relationship with his former party had been permanently altered. The 2006 and 2008 races had taken their toll. The party was drifting leftward, while Lieberman’s politics remained heterogeneous. All this would play out in a remarkable sequence of events in December 2009, with the Left’s cherished dream of universal health care hanging in the balance. Harry Reid was scrambling for a deal that would include the public option, a government insurance plan explicitly designed to serve as a precursor to a single-payer system—with that single payer being the federal government. (The public option was already a feature of a version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives.)

While a number of moderate Democrats and the most likely Republican supporter (Olympia Snowe of Maine) expressed doubts about the public option, Lieberman was the most vocal of its critics, and of a last minute, desperate substitute: the so-called Medicare buy-in proposal, which would have brought any willing American aged 55 or older into the national health-care system for seniors. Going on Face the Nation and putting out public statements while his similarly skeptical colleagues remained mute, Lieberman became the most high-profile impediment to the explicit expansion of the number of Americans in health plans administered by the federal government. Reid was forced to pull both the public option and the Medicare buy-in from the bill.

It was a replay of 2006. Paul Krugman declared on the New York Times op-ed pages that Lieberman should hang in effigy. Jane Hamsher, proprietor of a blog that had featured an image of Lieberman in blackface back in 2006, was demanding that Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, be dismissed from her job as the “global ambassador” of a breast-cancer foundation. On the Washington Post’s website, Ezra Klein thundered that Lieberman was bent on “torturing liberals” and “causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands” to punish his former party. He was labeled a traitor, a murderer, and an intellectual lightweight.

In a particularly bizarre blast, Jonathan Chait of the New Republic even suggested that Lieberman had been getting a pass on his questionable analytical abilities because of his Jewishness: “I suspect,” Chait wrote, “that Lieberman is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers. Trust me, it’s not true. If Senator Smith from Idaho was angering Democrats by spewing uninformed platitudes, most liberals would deride him as an idiot.”

A Huffington Post blogger named Michael Carmichael went even further, suggesting that Lieberman had undermined health-care reform as part of an international plot to help Israel:

[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s agent, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, provides the poison to the chalice of health care reform and—at the same time—accomplishes the mission of his ultimate master: The Prime Minister of a government of a foreign nation whose relations have proven to be more than burdensome for the American people.

Lee Siegel, the cultural critic, argued on the Daily Beast website that Lieberman was driven by fanaticism: “The strongest force driving Lieberman’s destructive contrariness is a religious fundamentalism that is fatally removed from moral sentiment. His absolute certainty that he is right makes him absolutely blind to what’s wrong.” A liberal group commissioned a poll showing that 80 percent of Democrats wanted Reid to strip Lieberman of his Homeland Security committee chairmanship.

Lieberman’s great offense was not opposition to a large new liberal entitlement program but his rejection of its most extreme feature. Indeed, once the public option and Medicare buy-in had been removed, Lieberman cast one of the crucial 60 votes to shut down a Republican filibuster, as well as another vote in favor of the bill, which, one might think, would have earned him some credit with the Left. But that was largely ignored by Lieberman’s foes. Once again Lieberman, in the eyes of the Left, had cavorted with conservatives to foil its most cherished dreams in what was supposedly a vengeful campaign to retaliate for the 2006 effort to unseat him.

So the question is: did the Left undermine its own cause by ostracizing and then seeking the political destruction of Lieberman in 2006? Imagine an  alternative time line in which Lieberman did not face a primary challenge in 2006 and ran easily for re-election without being vilified by the Left. Might he, in that scenario, have been less bold in his opposition to the Left’s preferences on health care? Might he perhaps have provided the 60th vote for some formulation of the public option or been more amenable to some version of the Medicare buy-in?

His advisers say that had Lieberman been re-elected as a Democrat, his policy positions in 2009 would have been no different. And it is certainly true that his behavior in regard to the public option was of a piece with Lieberman’s entire career, dating back to the time when he had been happily received as his party’s vice-presidential nominee—far from hostile to Democratic goals (namely, an expensive new entitlement) but unwilling to embrace the most extreme policy formulation of those goals.

Still, his unbridled challenge to the Left’s  favored proposal, his sharp and swift rebuke to leftist orthodoxy, and the resulting enraged reaction of those who favored the public option could well have played out in an altogether different fashion, with quiet compromise behind closed doors. The Left still might not have emerged entirely victorious, but its stinging  defeat could well have been tempered had Lieberman’s 2006 trial by fire not given him the complete intellectual and political freedom to deliver the knockout blow.

Two key questions remain, however. Why was the reaction to Lieberman’s opposition to one aspect of the Democrats’ health-care scheme—a position that was, at the time, shared by Democratic Senators Bill and Ben Nelson and perhaps others—so emotional? And why was it allowed to cast a shadow over what would have been, under ordinary circumstances, a moment of triumph for Democrats once the bill had passed the Senate?

Part of the explanation lies in the tribal, hyper-partisan style of politics now in ascendancy. Once again, as on the Iraq war, Lieberman in the health-care debate was violating the code of ideological purity embedded in the present-day political culture. Those who transcend the partisan divide, make allies on the other side, and are less predictable in their policy positions than their colleagues and the chorus of like-minded pundits have become more than an irritant. They have become pariahs on both sides of the aisle.

Lieberman is also a constant reminder that even though Democrats control the White House and Congress, the Left has been unable to achieve its highest policy aspirations. Once again, the Democratic leadership bent to the will of the Left’s opponents. In a replay of the battle to defund the Iraq war and to pull the plug on Afghanistan, the Left was eventually dismissed, its threats discounted. Activists and pundits were reminded that the power to shape policy without compromise still eludes them. And Lieberman—by his mere presence in the Senate and his ability to foil his enemies’ fondest dreams—makes that apparent to the rest of the political class and to the country.

Ironically, it was Jane Hamsher, writing on Politico, who conceded the real essence of the Left’s fury—that Lieberman was simply evidence that once again they had been “sold out” by the party establishment: “As majority leader, Reid has turned the Senate into little more than a rubber stamp for the executive branch. He’s not a leader—he’s a man looking for an excuse. And Lieberman is the perfect excuse.”

Lieberman’s behavior on the health-care bill had poured salt in the wound, reminding Left–liberals that even with one-party rule, activists did not hold the balance of power on the most decisive issue on their agenda. Their nemesis did. Once the bill had passed in the Senate (and before its demise following the Massachusetts Senate election) without the public option, some elements on the Left, astonishingly, joined with conservative critics in vilifying the Senate’s health-care  legislation, and their assaults helped give  Machiavellian Democrats fearful of the public’s ire in November just the cover they needed to step away from the increasingly unpopular effort to “fix” the system.

The Left’s decision to reactivate the war against Lieberman in 2009 may have been the harbinger of an internecine political calamity for Democrats, and the unraveling of the uneasy coalition they had painstakingly assembled over the course of two elections, which enabled them to capture both houses of Congress and the White House. The price for ideological purity and the vilification of less-than-pristine political allies may well be a steep one, measured in lost seats, reduced fundraising, and declining voter enthusiasm. In that sense, the Left’s obsessive pursuit of  Joseph I. Lieberman may prove to be the undoing of the fortunes of the party in which this faction has come to occupy such an influential role.

About the Author

Jennifer Rubin is an attorney and journalist living in Virginia.

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