01.18.11

Joe Lieberman Retiring From the Senate

The Connecticut senator will announce his retirement Wednesday. In the end, Howard Kurtz writes, the Democrat-turned-independent never really healed from 2004, 2006, and 2008, though he briefly became a hero of the left by championing the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.

In the end, Joe Lieberman decided he didn’t need any more tsuris.

Not that the Connecticut senator would describe his decision to retire with that Yiddish term. He will offer a more philosophical explanation when he makes the official announcement Wednesday, a move that a Lieberman aide confirmed to The Daily Beast.

Lieberman, 68, plans to quote a passage from Ecclesiastes, popularized by a Byrds song: “To everything there is a season…”

As a man without a party, the Democrat-turned-independent faced a rocky path to reelection in 2012. The Lieberman aide did not dispute that, while noting that his boss has won difficult races before: the 1988 upset against Lowell Weicker that landed him in the Senate, and the 2006 comeback after losing the Democratic primary.

The bottom line, said the staffer, who did not want to be quoted preempting the boss’ news conference, is that after 40 years in public life, Lieberman wants to do something different.

Perhaps. But my own sense, having observed him closely for decades, is that the scars of 2004, 2006, and 2008 never quite healed.

In ’04, Lieberman was coming off a heartbreaking loss as Al Gore’s running mate four years earlier. He should have been a credible candidate for the White House. But he was too conservative for the Democratic primary electorate, and his lackluster campaign went nowhere fast. With the additional baggage of having backed the Iraq War, he dropped out after failing to win in the first seven primaries and caucuses. It was an outright rejection, and it hurt.

Two years later, with the war effort in shambles, Democratic activists streamed into Connecticut and helped newcomer Ned Lamont capture the nomination. Lieberman could not have clawed his way to victory without strong backing from Republicans.

The Senate aide said the move will liberate Lieberman to act as an “honest broker” between the party he left and the party he nearly embraced.

His divorce from the party was complete in ’08, when Lieberman not only supported John McCain but committed the apostasy of speaking for his friend at the Republican convention. McCain wanted to name Joe to the ticket—which would have had Lieberman running for the vice presidency in two parties within eight years—but was convinced he would face a revolt in St. Paul.

In Lieberman’s mind, he has been consistent. He didn’t change; the Democratic Party moved left. Lieberman sees himself as a JFK Democrat—a defense hawk and a social liberal—and plans to cite Kennedy’s 50-year-old inaugural address at the announcement in Stamford.

Lieberman usually votes with the Democrats, but with two significant party figures gearing up to run for his seat back home, he faced the prospect of defecting to the GOP or again winning a three-way race as an independent.

While some liberal activists still mutter at the mention of Lieberman’s name, he briefly became a champion of the left when he helped salvage President Obama’s bid to repeal the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. I spoke to him after the bill passed in December and he was exultant, feeling he had accomplished something of lasting value. He probably came to regard it as a capstone of his career.

Why declare yourself a lame duck nearly two years in advance? In an era when the public claims to want more bipartisanship, the Senate aide said, the move will liberate Lieberman to act as an “honest broker” between the party he left and the party he nearly embraced.

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Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.