Joe Lieberman is finally on his way out, and plenty of people in Connecticut are glad to see him go. He delivers his final speech on the Senate floor this week, and he’ll be looking to cement what he sees as his legacy. Few back home will feel like listening.
Lieberman’s real legacy is that of the moderate who might have been, the renegade who seemed to thrive more on being the contrarian rather than through building bipartisan consensus.
I used to admire and respect Joe Lieberman. I believed that he was a principled moderate, and I defended him when people criticized him. When he was nominated to be Al Gore’s running mate, I was so proud. Not even his pro-war stance drove me completely away, though I struggled to understand it. What finally turned me off was the fury and absurd nastiness of his 2006 primary campaign, and his increasingly arrogant and contrary actions after he won. By the time he appeared on stage at the RNC in 2008, he seemed more like an opportunist than a thoughtful moderate. I was done with him, and I began to wonder if the man I’d admired had ever existed at all.
Imagine if Joe Lieberman had won the vice presidency in 2000. He could have served one or two terms in a Gore administration and perhaps cemented a more moderate course for Democratic politics for a generation to come. His legacy would have been secure. Of course, such a world would likely have existed without what came to be the defining moment, for good or for ill, of his career: the Iraq War.
At first, it seemed like Iraq was a godsend for Lieberman. But instead it was a mirage, a deadly desert fantasy that ultimately drove his career aground. Joe Lieberman swam freely in the paranoid, ultra-patriotic and militaristic waters of 2002 and 2003. This was Lieberman at his most powerful, he ushered in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and launched his campaign for president as a Democratic hawk. His support for the war and high name recognition helped keep him at the front of the Democratic pack before the war went sour and the anti-war wing of the party gained strength.
Lieberman wore out his welcome in the Democratic Party in 2006’s bruising, bitter primary, although cracks had begun to appear between him and the rest of his party years before. His condemnation of Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, his poor debate performance in 2000, and his embrace of the Bush administration served to infuriate Democrats. His support for Iraq was the final straw. His 2006 primary loss still managed to shock him, and he turned in fury on his former party. “The Democratic Party today was not the party it was in 2000,” he remarked bitterly in 2008. “It’s not the Bill Clinton-Al Gore party, which was strong internationalists, strong on defense, pro-trade, pro-reform in our domestic government. It’s been effectively taken over by a small group on the left of the party . . . So it pains me.” He rode that pain all the way to the stage at the 2008 Republican National Convention, where he lionized his friend John McCain, called Sarah Palin “a reformer who has taken on the special interests and reached across party lines,” and bashed Barack Obama for, ironically, not being bipartisan enough.
Joe Lieberman occupied a middle ground that resembled a wide, empty plain. Like his friend and fellow maverick John McCain, he has precious few moments of real bipartisan accomplishment to show for a long career seeking out the middle. What great compromises did he broker? What bills, apart from creating the sinister-sounding Department of Homeland Security, has he passed?
In the end, Lieberman did little to really advance the cause of moderation. It could be that the political climate of the past decade wouldn’t allow him to do so, or it could be that he was simply incapable of it. Lieberman is either someone who stood up for what he believed in during a time of intense partisanship and paid for it, or a publicity-seeking opportunist who made a name for himself largely by thwarting the party that gave him the vice-presidential nomination. I suspect it’s both. He may end up as a cautionary tale no matter how you see him.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.