JOSEPH ISADORE LIEBERMAN
Most recall the famous, or infamous, presidential election of 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College–by five votes–to George W. Bush. Bush’s running mate, Dick Cheney, is equally well known. But who was Gore’s vice-presidential running mate? Yes, Joe Lieberman, iconic political gadfly who frequently straddled the political fence separating Democrats from Republicans. He was the first Jewish candidate on a major American political party presidential ticket. He and his wife Hadassah maintain a kosher home and celebrate the Sabbath; he does not drive on that day. In one notable incident, then-Senator Lieberman walked to the Capitol after Sabbath services to block a Republican filibuster. In 2004 he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination–for 3 weeks.
While Lieberman’s Senate career ended in January 2013, he and his family were still troubling Democrats in 2020. He endorsed Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, with whom he had worked closely in the Senate on national security issues. And his son Matt was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate in the Georgia special election, garnering just 2.8% of the vote. Leading up to the election, many liberal groups communicated with both Liebermans, urging them to support the Democratic candidates, but to no avail. To add insult to injury, Matt Lieberman had recently written a novel that many said contained racist tropes.
Born in Stamford, Conn., in 1942, to a middle class family, Lieberman graduated from Yale University and its law school. He served as a senator from Connecticut from 1989 to 2013; he made history in 1994 by winning by the largest landslide ever in a Connecticut Senate race, drawing 67 percent of the vote and besting his opponent by more than 350,000 votes. That popularity was rewarded in 2006 when he lost the Democratic primary to the current governor, but formed his own third party and was reelected to a fourth term.
In 2010, Lieberman joined with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and others to form No Labels–a group dedicated to working across the aisle as problem-solvers. This stance of helping the people and not letting politics get in the way is a through line in Lieberman’s career. Huntsman, also a former ambassador to Russia, China, and Singapore, is viewed by Republicans in much the same way that Lieberman is viewed by Democrats–as a wild card.
Toward the end of his tenure, Democrats began to view Lieberman warily. In 2008 he endorsed his good friend John McCain for president at the Republican National Convention. As he often shared travel junkets on Senate business with McCain and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, they were dubbed The Three Amigos. Lieberman described himself at the time as “genuinely an Independent,” adding, “I agree more often than not with Democrats on domestic policy. I agree more often than not with Republicans on foreign and defense policy.”
In 1998 Lieberman achieved some notoriety and praise after he delivered an extraordinary public condemnation of President Bill Clinton from the floor of the Senate for his extramarital relationship with a White House intern, activity that Lieberman described as “immoral,” “disgraceful” and deserving of “public rebuke and accountability,” including for his “intentional and premeditated” denials of the affair for seven months. And this from a longtime Friend of Bill! About 10 days after the speech, according to Lieberman, he received a call from Clinton, confessing, “I just want you to know that there’s nothing you said in that speech that I don’t agree with. And I want you to know that I’m working on it.”
Lieberman authored legislation that led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. During debate on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as the crucial 60th vote needed to pass the legislation, his opposition to the public health insurance option was critical to its removal from the resulting bill signed by President Barack Obama. He was one of the Senate’s strongest advocates for the war in Iraq, and remains a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Lieberman is also remembered for his leadership in the successful effort to repeal the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy regarding sexual orientation in the U.S. Armed Forces. He championed abortion rights and the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt children, and for protections against hate crime. In addition, Lieberman was one of the Senate’s leading opponents of violence in video games and on television.
In 1995, in an area that may resonate today, Lieberman joined with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to cosponsor an amendment to kill the filibuster. “The filibuster hurts the credibility of the entire Senate and impedes progress,” Lieberman told the Hartford Courant.
Lieberman’s post-Senate career has involved legal work, university teaching, and serving as co-chair of The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, along with former secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge. In 2013 Lieberman extended his across-the-aisle identity by joining former Senate colleague Jon Kyl at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, co-chairing the American Internationalism Project, which aimed to “reshape a bipartisan consensus around American global leadership and engagement.” Lieberman said “there is an urgent need to rebuild a bipartisan — indeed non-political — consensus for American diplomatic, economic, and military leadership in the world.”
In June 2015, Lieberman was a signatory to a public letter written by a bipartisan group of 19 U.S. diplomats, experts, and others, on the then-pending negotiations for an agreement between Iran and world powers over Iran’s nuclear program. The letter outlined concerns about several provisions in the then-unfinished agreement and called for a number of improvements to strengthen it. The final agreement shows the influence of the letter. In March 2016, Lieberman was hired by the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation to assist the group in challenging Connecticut laws giving exemptions to only the top two state gaming tribes to build casinos. That year he also joined the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, an organization founded to address anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish bigotry in the United States.
How successful would Joe Lieberman be in the Senate of today? It is a very different place, with Democrats who are solidly blue and Republicans who are solidly red, with few exceptions. A senator who was decidedly purple could vex both sides equally. But it provided a lot of freedom to vote as he saw fit. Maybe a Joe Manchin-type strikes every decade….