11.10.08

Lieberman's Empty Promises

Why President-elect Obama and Harry Reid should be weary of the senator from Connecticut.

I realize it's often tough to objectively evaluate a friend and colleague, especially when you are members of the most exclusive club in the world. When you see them all the time in the Senate cloakroom, laugh at their jokes, and nudge them to stay awake during Joe Biden's oratory, you can lose sight of the knife in your back.

Case in point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who now says, "Joe Lieberman is not some right-wing nutcase...Joe Lieberman is one of the most progressive people ever to come from the state of Connecticut."

Where to begin? Well, let’s start in 2000, when Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic candidate for vice president—in response to pressure from the Bush campaign and without checking with his own campaign—conceded hundreds of fraudulent overseas ballots supposedly from military voters that cost Al Gore the election, the notorious "Thanksgiving Stuffing."

Would Lieberman join a diminished Republican minority, have no chairmanship whatsoever, and enter a party in which he could never hope to win a 2012 election in Connecticut?

Let's skip lightly over Lieberman’s part in the culture wars, his sanctimonious rebuke of President Clinton on the floor of the Senate at the start of the impeachment charade, and his critical role as part of the so-called “Gang of 14” breaking Democratic resistance to putting Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Let’s jump straight to Lieberman’s December 6, 2005 speech where he rebuked his party:

It is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be Commander-in-Chief for three more critical months, and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril.

While Lieberman was quick to denounce Clinton for a private matter he leaped to the defense of Bush as even Republicans realized his strategy in the Iraq War was disastrous. Criticize George W. Bush and his conduct of the war and you're a traitor.

Lieberman subsequently told the New Haven Register that he opposed legislation that would have required all publicly funded hospitals to provide Plan B contraception to rape victims, saying "it shouldn't take more than a short ride to get to another hospital" (for which he earned himself the sobriquet "Short Ride.")

The 2006 Democratic primary campaign in Connecticut was in some respects a warm-up for Lieberman’s negative attacks on Barack Obama, ironic given that Obama endorsed him. Lieberman had been assigned to show the freshman the ropes in the Senate and Obama called him his “mentor.” Obama rushed to the state to deliver a ringing endorsement of Lieberman at the annual party dinner. No good deed goes unpunished.

Lieberman’s opponent, Ned Lamont, was a wealthy banker from Greenwich, an antiwar activist and gentlemanly. Supported by the Democratic establishment, Lieberman claimed he would abide by the results of the primary. But when he lost he ran as a member of a new political party, called the “Connecticut for Lieberman Party.” He blanketed cars in parking lots of African-American churches with flyers suggesting Lamont was racist. (Lamont had resigned from a country club, not because it practiced discrimination but because he felt it was not diverse enough.) Meanwhile, Lieberman stoked racial tensions by telling Jewish groups in Connecticut saying that Lamont had surrounded himself with people like Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Al Sharpton "who are either naïve or are isolationists or, frankly, some more explicitly against Israel."

Lieberman also declared himself a " non combatant" in the 2006 congressional races and refused to say which party should have the majority. The Bush White House and Karl Rove openly lent him support, winning him a vast majority of Republican votes and the election.

Lieberman had campaigned as a born-again antiwar advocate, telling Connecticut voters he was confident troop withdrawals from Iraq would begin by the end of the year, and that 50 percent would be home by the end of the following year. Nobody, he assured voters, wanted to bring the troops home more than him. The month after his election, he called for an immediate increase of 15,000-30,000 troops.

During his campaign, Lieberman said that it was important for him win his Senate race in order to "elect a Democratic president in 2008," and that Lamont and his supporters would "frustrate and defeat our hope of doing that." Undoubtedly, he was a good friend of John McCain for years. And he agreed with McCain about the Iraq War. But underlying his actions was bitterness against the Democrats.

Lieberman threatened to caucus with the Republicans over and over again to get his way as the decisive marginal vote in a Senate held by the Democrats by only one vote—Joe Lieberman's.

But it was with the 2008 presidential election that his bitterness became his rocket fuel. Lieberman was unbound. In addition to acting as McCain’s sidekick and protector, he stumped for Republican senator, campaigning for Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota against their Democratic opponents.

Lieberman promised Reid privately that he would not attack Obama directly and personally. But when prevailed upon by the McCain operatives, Lieberman could not help himself. He played the paragon of decency even as he gleefully accepted the role of snarling attack dog.

  • He said that "Obama has not always put country first."
  • He thought it was a "good question" to inquire whether Obama is a Marxist.
  • He misleadingly accused Obama of having "voted to cut off funding for our troops."
  • He repeated the claim that "Hamas endorsed Obama" and said it "suggests the difference between these two candidates."
  • He sent out an email for McCain, referring to the "Democrat" Party, the derogatory term of art preferred by the most partisan Republicans.

Lieberman went on to deride Obama in a speech before the Republican National Convention (after promising Reid he would not do so), saying he was an "an eloquent young man" who lacked the experience to be president. Reid's office said that Lieberman's seniority within the Democratic caucus, and his Chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee might be in jeopardy. Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs went on CNN to declare that Lieberman engaged in "flat out lies." But Lieberman would not let up against Obama.

McCain had wanted to name Lieberman as his running mate. He would then have become the first man to run for vice president as both a Democrat and a Republican. But McCain’s handlers warned him that Republicans would not accept a Democrat on the ticket and that the right-wing would mount opposition to it on the floor of the convention. Instead, McCain chose Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Lieberman’s effort to secure Jewish votes for McCain, especially in Florida, were undercut by Palin’s presence. In the end, his strenuous efforts had no effect.

After the meeting between Reid and Lieberman last week, it was reported that Reid told him he was welcome to stay in the Democratic caucus if he traded in his powerful chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee for a less influential one as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Lieberman gave a press conference afterwards in which he threatened once again to caucus with the Republicans and called Reid's offer "unacceptable." But how big a threat was that? Would Lieberman join a diminished Republican minority, have no chairmanship whatsoever, and enter a party in which he could never hope to win a 2012 election in Connecticut?

Lieberman's aides say he is mulling over his options, whatever those might be. Reid says the discussions will go on. But Lieberman's call to let bygones be bygones rings as hollow as his promise to draw troops down from Iraq.

During the Bush administration, as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Lieberman showed no interest whatsoever in investigating a multitude of scandals, including those of Hurricane Katrina. He abandoned his promise to investigate them after Rove helped him hold his Senate seat.

If Reid buckles to Lieberman's threats, permitting him to keep control of the Homeland Security Committee, the Democrats will no doubt discover that Lieberman has a new zeal for investigating that will be a thorn in Obama's side for the next four years. Still wielding power the turncoat would exact his revenge on the new president.

Jane Hamsher, a Connecticut native, is the founder of firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet, The Nation and The American Prospect. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, PBS, and the BBC and is the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct. She has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. (She was a supporter of Ned Lamont in his race against Joe Lieberman.)