Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:
I have mixed feelings about the departure of Senator Joe Lieberman from public life. I’ve had fierce disagreements with him in recent years, especially in the area of foreign policy–especially in the middle east, where he is an ardent Likudnik. He has taken positions that are more reflective of what he believes to be Israel’s best interests–in favor of bombing Iran, for example–than they are of U.S. national security goals (although I do believe he actually thinks Israel’s interests and ours are the same). His support for the dramatically unpresidential John McCain against Barack Obama was execrable. Indeed, his willingness to attach himself to McCain’s hip during foreign jaunts diminished his stature as a Senator.
But I’ve never known Lieberman to be rude or mean-spirited. I’ve always known him to be a good guy–and on the vast majority of non-foreign policy issues, he usually took positions that were carefully reasoned and sometimes courageous. His work on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was rightly celebrated. But his efforts to build a bipartisan energy bill–with a price on carbon emissions–really was heroic last year. I hope he’ll continue to press that issue in his last Congressional session; I hope he’ll be able to rope Lindsey Graham–and perhaps even crotchety McCain–back into the fold, as well as other Republicans who must realize that reducing our dependence on foreign oil has become an absolute economic and national defense necessity, even if they doubt the obvious data on climate change.
If you look back over the past two years, perhaps the most consequential decision made by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was to give Joe Lieberman his chairmanship, even though Lieberman had endorsed John McCain in the 2008 campaign.
That kept Lieberman in the fold, and after Arlen Specter switched parties and Al Franken won his election, gave Democrats the 60 votes they needed to break a Republican filibuster against health-care reform. Lieberman’s behavior during the debate was often erratic and seemingly unprincipled. Among other things, he skipped the meetings where Democrats were trying to work out a compromise on the public option, and then he killed the Medicare buy-in proposal they’d developed — despite endorsing that exact proposal months before. In doing so, he doomed a great piece of policy, and by doing it at the last minute, endangered the rest of the bill, too. But the reality is that the legislation simply wouldn’t have passed without his vote. And after extracting his pound of flesh, he voted “aye.”
That wasn’t Lieberman’s only moment as a good soldier for the Democrats: He was one of the key senators behind the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was also one of the three lawmakers involved in the most credible of the efforts to pass a cap-and-trade bill. The legislation failed, but if it had succeeded, it would’ve been in no small part due to his hard work. And Lieberman was loyal to his party in other ways, too. He was Harry Reid’s single largest donor in the Senate, for instance.
Robert Farley at Lawyers Guns and Money responds:
We can agree that the decision to keep Joe Lieberman in the fold ended up as a net positive for the Democrats, and should be counted as one of the better moves by Obama and Reid. However, what Ezra describes here is behavior that is slightly below the minimal acceptable standards for a Democratic Senator in the 111th Congress. It’s quite above the Expected Joe Lieberman Value standard, but this merely acknowledges that the EJLV was staggeringly low. It would be better to say that Joe Lieberman performed substantially below (his leadership on DADT notwithstanding) what we would have expected from Senator Lamont. This is to say that if Ned Lamont had behaved in such a fashion, we would have been surprised, disappointed, and angered.
Joe ain’t all that, and we should be glad that he’s heading for retirement
I had a couple thoughts. First, he did run for vice president in 2000 and helped to make it razor-close in Florida. (According to the Democrats, he actually helped Al Gore win the state.) He cast mulitple votes for liberal Supreme Court justices and, of course, delivered on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And he could have, but did not, abandon the Democrats on cloture on ObamaCare. In a rational world, he would be lionized by the Democratic Party.
But Ezra, I think, asks the wrong question. Lieberman’s entire career was not about being good for the party, it was about being true to his own deeply-held principles. Last year, I wrote a lengthy piece on Lieberman, pointing out that it was precisely his refusal to adhere to the party line that made him a villain on the left.
The correct question, I would suggest, is whether Lieberman was good for America. He championed a robust human rights policy, was indefatigable on national security, strove for a bipartisanship on foreign policy (which now actually seems possible), generally favored pro-growth economic policies and was an unabashed patriot.
Liberals loves a “maverick” — so long as he or she (e.g. Sens. John McCain, Arlen Specter, Susan Collins) is on the other side. But, they tolerate hardly at all those Democrats who don’t check the box on every item on the left-wing agenda.
It is a pity. For if there is one lawmaker who put country above party, practiced civility, and represented “no labels,” it was Joe Lieberman. He’ll be missed — by the Senate and the country, if not the party that was his home for nearly all of his political career.
Jonathan Chait at TNR:
Lieberman’s final departure from the party became inevitable when he supported, and enthusiastically campaigned for, John McCain in 2008. It’s one thing for a Dixecrat in a Southern state to do that fifty years ago, but Connecticut is one of the more liberal states in the country. After that, Lieberman had no plausible path to return to the Senate.
The most interesting question may be why Lieberman took this suicidal path. My guess would be that he didn’t consider it suicide. Lieberman is a true believing New Democrat who is influenced by the neoconservatives. One common thread uniting these two strands of thought is an overly-developed fear of McGovernism. George McGovern, the very liberal Democratic nominee in 1972, lost in a landslide, and his defeat ever since has been held up as evidence that middle America rejects and always will reject unvarnished liberalism. I think there’s some truth to that but it’s an oversimplified view.
The point, though, is that Lieberman is almost certainly a true believer in the legend. And you have to remember that, when Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, a lot of centrists and neoconservatives viewed him as the heir to McGovern and a likely loser. In Lieberman’s mind, I would submit, Obama was the heir to McGovern, and after he went down to defeat at the hands of popular maverick John McCain, Lieberman would be well-positioned to say “I told you so.” He could then tell Democrats that only his brand of moderate Democratic politics could truly prevail, and the sadder but wiser party base would trudge back to his column.
Obviously, I’m speculating. It’s highly unusual for a competent politician to take such a suicidal step. It’s possibly Lieberman knew what he was doing when he sealed his own fate in 2008, but I think he really believed he could survive.
Chait’s speculation is plausible, but I would add a little more. Lieberman’s decision to back McCain later on was very likely influenced by the debate over the “surge” in early 2007. Along with Lieberman, McCain was one of the most vocal supporters of the new plan, and Obama was one of many to voice skepticism and opposition to it. By the summer of 2008, a fairly conventional, mistaken view on the right and in many mainstream media organizations was that the “surge” had “worked,” and that Obama had judged incorrectly. This gave Lieberman something specific to which he could link his (baseless) fear of a new McGovern.
When Lieberman returned to the Senate in 2007, he had just come out of a general election in which practically the only people in the national media who vocally supported him were McCain’s reliably hawkish supporters in the GOP, including many prominent neoconservatives. These had been the people wailing and gnashing their teeth about the “purge” of Lieberman in the summer of 2006, and they became Lieberman’s cheering section because of their common support for the war in Iraq. Lieberman’s victory was their one consolation in an election that drove the GOP out of power largely because of the war in Iraq. The ideological and political alliance between Lieberman and hawkish interventionists in the GOP became stronger than any residual partisan attachment Lieberman might have had, and so endorsing McCain must have seemed the obvious sequel to his independent run for the Senate. For that reason, my guess is that Lieberman would have backed McCain even if Clinton had been the Democratic nominee, because she had also opposed the “surge,” which was an inexcusable error for people who viewed the war as Lieberman did.
Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos:
We were going to kick his ass, and it was going to feel great.
But I’ll take it. One way or another, Connecticut will have a real Democrat representing the state in that seat, and America will be much better for it.