Joe's Final Lap?
Mara Lavitt, New Haven Register
As the contenders in Connecticut’s U.S. Senate race head for the home stretch, the incumbent, independent Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman is wrapping up his term. But will it be his final lap in politics?
“I am addicted to public service, and I know my life will continue to be involved in public service,” says Lieberman. “I’m not retiring, I’m just leaving the Senate, but I don’t want to wind up working 16 hours a day, and I don’t want to do anything to compromise my reputation.” Unlike former colleague Christopher Dodd, the senator says that he won’t get into lobbying, but leaves open all other options.
Asked about his legacy, Lieberman says he is proud of his role in civil rights legislation and environmental protection, and, after the 9/11 attacks, the prime part he played in creating the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and what he calls the “most significant restructuring of our national-security apparatus since the beginning of the Cold War.”
Lieberman chose not to seek reelection and many believe he’d have had a tough time gaining another term. After losing the Democratic Senate primary in 2006, he only managed to hold on to his job by running as an independent. Then, instead of weaving himself back into his party, he famously endorsed the Republican nominee for president in 2008, Sen. John McCain.
“He made decisions to strike out on his own, and be independent of both parties, and it cut his career short,” says Scott McLean, political science professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. “It shows that political parties are still important. If you try to be independent, you may not get much done.”
“I was eager to work across party lines,” says Lieberman, “[but] I served in Congress at a time of increasing partisanship and rigidity.”
Many Democrats believe Lieberman was thumbing his nose at them with the McCain endorsement because he was peeved that party leaders allowed liberals to mount a challenge against him in 2006. He admits losing the primary was one of the more painful moments of his political life, but adds, “I am not bitter—because I won and had the opportunity to serve another six years.”
Still, it’s been an odd journey for Lieberman, from 2000 when he was the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee to his short-lived presidential run in 2004 that foundered on his dogged support for the Iraq war to his embrace of McCain in 2008.
He contends his hawkish stance on foreign policy was not alien to the Democratic party. “I’m a JFK Democrat and the positions that created problems for me were consistent with JFK’s policies,” he claims. In 2004 there was “a real turn in the Democratic party against the war in Iraq,” he concedes. “I was offering something people didn’t want.”
“The fundamental values of the Democratic party still have a strong hold on Sen. Lieberman,” says the state’s other U.S. Senator, Democrat Richard Blumenthal. “He still has a lot in common with the party, even if he has differed on some important issues.”
The presumed end of Lieberman’s career in elective politics has many speculating, “What if?”
According to former Republican congressman Christopher Shays, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate this year, Lieberman erred in 2000 by simultaneously running for vice president and re-election to the Senate, suggesting that “angered a lot of Democrats” because if Lie-berman had become vice president, a Republican governor would have named a Republican to fill his seat. Shays asserts that Lieberman’s Senate “campaign” consisted of a day or two back in Connecticut, and “if he’d spent another 15 minutes in Florida they would have had [the election].” He adds, “I never understood why Al Gore allowed that to happen.”
McLean says Lieberman could have “found a way to make peace with the Democratic Party [after 2006], but didn’t do it.”
The senator himself voices no regrets. “I’ve enjoyed this liberation from partisan politics as an independent,” he says, and that includes sitting on the sidelines now. “I’m going to stay out of the presidential and U.S. Senate races and concentrate on being the best senator I can. It feels good not to be involved in what has become the increasing nastiness of campaigns.”
Although he says he remains hopeful, Lieberman worries about the future of U.S politics. “The level of anger is rising,” he says. “The forces encouraging ideological rigidity seem unabated.”