Exit Interview

Joe Lieberman’s Slow-Motion Divorce From the Democratic Party

He has been driving Democrats crazy for nearly 25 years. Howard Kurtz talks to the retiring senator about why he believes his party abandoned him.

07.18.12 8:45 AM ET

During the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, Joe Lieberman was leaving an Oval Office meeting when George H.W. Bush turned to him and said, “Where are you on this, Joe?” 

The freshman Democratic senator said he agreed that Congress should formally authorize military action to liberate Kuwait. “I want you to know I’ll strongly support it,” he said, “because I think it’s the right thing to do.” 

There was stone-cold silence from the dozen other assembled Democrats—a reaction that Lieberman found “very troubling.” 

It was the first step on a winding road that would ultimately produce a bitter breakup between Lieberman and his party. In an age when so much attention is riveted on the brass-knuckle warfare between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, perhaps the more corrosive fights occur within each political family, where orthodoxy is strictly enforced.

Just last week Lieberman broke ranks again, saying he would oppose President Obama’s plan to extend the Bush tax cuts for a year for all but the wealthiest taxpayers. That kind of opposition rankles Democrats all the more because the vote itself is purely symbolic, with the proposal having no chance of passing the Republican House. 

Lieberman is retiring at year’s end rather than run for a fifth term as an independent. He leaves the scene as a man without a home, who somehow migrated from being Al Gore’s running mate to a star speaker at John McCain’s Republican convention in eight short years. Despised by some on the left but not fully trusted by the right, he is a moral man with a sanctimonious streak who has never quite been comfortable in the Beltway’s polarized culture.   

While the 70-year-old Lieberman says it was time to move on, he concedes that if Congress was accomplishing things, “it probably would have been a little harder to leave.” And he is one of a steady stream of moderates in both parties, from Olympia Snowe to Evan Bayh, to flee the toxic swamp on the Hill.

In the end, says Lieberman, “I feel the Democratic Party left me. It was no longer the party it was when I joined it in the image of President Kennedy.” Of course, a similar critique could be offered of the Republican Party, which has veered so sharply right that Jeb Bush said both his father and Ronald Reagan would have had a hard time in today’s party, which “doesn’t allow for disagreement.” 

An observant Jew with a gentle demeanor, Lieberman was Connecticut’s attorney general in 1988 when he challenged incumbent senator Lowell Weicker, winning by 10,000 votes. He soon proved himself a political cross-dresser, teaming up with Reagan conservative Bill Bennett to crusade against crudeness in pop culture. 

In 1998, as impeachment fever was building, Lieberman denounced Bill Clinton on the Senate floor, calling his behavior immoral and deceitful. Some Democrats saw it as an act of betrayal against his Yale Law School pal, who campaigned for Lieberman in his first run for state office in 1970. 

But the following week Clinton called him on a Sunday morning, saying he had made a mistake with Monica Lewinsky and was working on it. When Lieberman was named the vice-presidential nominee in 2000, Clinton phoned with what amounted to absolution: “Because of that speech you gave about my problem, Al Gore is free to campaign on our record, not the mistakes I made.”  

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If Democrats warmed to Lieberman during his vice-presidential campaign —although some grumbled he was too passive in his debate with Dick Cheney—such feelings quickly dissipated when George W. Bush geared up to invade Iraq. As the war effort turned sour, Lieberman doggedly argued for staying the course. He says that withdrawal would have been a “devastating blow” for American credibility. 

As some Democrats derided his hawkish stance, “I felt incredibly alienated,” Lieberman says. “It wasn’t just that they disagreed with me, but somehow I had committed just a terrible sin—because I was on the same side as George Bush.” 

At the president walked down the aisle for his State of the Union address, “we gave each other a hug. Allegedly a kiss. A kiss did not occur, in my experience.”  

Little wonder that Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign had been an embarrassing flop; he was simply out of step with a liberal electorate. When he sat down in his Georgetown home to plan his 2006 reelection bid, media adviser Carter Eskew gave him some sobering news.  

 “I’m worried about whether you’re going to win the Democratic primary,” Eskew said. “I think you should run as an independent.”  

Lieberman replied that he’d always been a Democrat and there was no way he would voluntarily give that up. “If they want to kick me out, let them kick me out,” he declared. 

 “Words I came to eat,” Lieberman says now. 

Eskew recalls the moment. “I don’t think you had to be a genius to realize he was in deep trouble in the Democratic Party in Connecticut,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for him. He had a lot of bitterness and anger toward the party. He felt he had served it for years and years.”

Liberal bloggers and antiwar activists rallied behind his little-known opponent, Ned Lamont. “I was shocked,” says Lamont, who tried to get “the usual suspects” to challenge Lieberman instead. “I was the former third selectman from Greenwich, Conn.—not ideally suited to lead the charge in the Democratic Party.” 

But while Clinton campaigned for his erstwhile friend, Lamont won the nomination on what Lieberman calls “the most painful day of my political career.”  

Having asked Democratic voters to support him, Lieberman turned around and challenged their nominee, hanging on to his seat as an independent. Eskew had bailed, feeling he could not work against the Democratic candidate, especially since Lamont was an old friend from high school.  

Less than two years later, McCain came close to putting Lieberman on the 2008 ticket, before picking you know who. He and McCain had grown close over the years, visiting trouble spots around the world.

Lieberman agreed to be vetted, but both men were spooked by reports that a third of the convention’s delegates would walk out to protest such a move. “I would have accepted it,” says Lieberman. “It’s hard to turn down an offer like that.”

Instead, the senator wound up addressing the convention in St. Paul. This was “no act of revenge,” Lieberman insists, but it was an extraordinary slap at the party whose presidential nomination he had sought four years earlier. “Let me tell you the harsh truth,” Lieberman says. Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton “was asking for my support. I was still persona non grata with the Democrats because of the Iraq War. I don’t have any second thoughts about supporting John McCain.”    

Eskew, who helped engineer Lieberman’s first Senate win, was bothered by such moves, seeing them as “really driven by rancor.” But on balance, he says, “there’s a vitriol some people have about Joe. They see in him this political opportunism. I see quite the opposite, a man of principle.”   

Lieberman wound up feeling liberated by his forcible ejection from the party, although he had to survive a Senate vote to strip him of his chairmanships after the Democrats regained control of Congress that fall. He instantly recalls the vote total, 43 to 12. “I’m not naïve that people in the Democratic caucus would be angry,” he says.  

Lieberman’s centrist instincts led to a major clash with the Obama administration when he staunchly opposed the public option in the president’s health-care proposal, almost single-handedly killing the provision. Once again, liberals seethed at the man they considered their top turncoat.   

Perhaps Lieberman concluded, as he says, it was time to move on rather than seek another term. But Lamont calls him “an Etch a Sketch candidate” and says he had “not a prayer” of winning reelection. “No way he would have gotten the Democratic nomination, and no way the Republicans wouldn’t have put up a serious candidate this time—which left him very little room,” Lamont says. Still, his former foe calls Lieberman “a very affable guy” and says the hostility in Connecticut is fading, particularly with Iraq “in the rear-view mirror.”

As the clock ticks down on his Senate career, Lieberman has learned to live with the abuse. “One of the things I learned early on in public life is, you have to be ready for public anger if you’re going to have the guts to say what you believe,” he explains, sounding morose but comfortable in his own skin.