Simply ‘Lieberman’: The independent and enigmatic politics of the late Connecticut Democrat

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As I write this, I’m befuddled as to how to identify the late Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

He died from a fall at age 82 in New York this week.

For writing purposes, do I stylize him as “Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.?” Or do I write “Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.?”

This subject vexed me for years. It became even more acute after Lieberman departed the Senate in early 2013. I’ve had the opportunity to mention him or write about the late senator in passing. But the conundrum as to “what” Lieberman “was” politically is an enigma. And it attests to his staunch independence, refusing to align himself too closely with one party or another.

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Voters sent Lieberman to the Senate in 1988 as a Democrat. He defeated late Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn. Ironically, Weicker later became governor of the Nutmeg State – as an independent.

Lieberman plowed his own path in the Senate as a Democrat. The statement about Lieberman’s death by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was emblematic of how he frustrated his home party.

“While we often disagreed on politics, no one could doubt his love of his family, his home state of Connecticut and his country,” said Pelosi.

Lieberman drew anger from Democrats over his support for the war in Iraq. He faced criticism for seeming too cozy with Republicans and the administration of President George W. Bush. This issue metastasized for Lieberman after 9/11. Democrats lambasted Lieberman for supporting the administration’s energy policy. 

In 2006, Lieberman lost the Democratic Senate nomination to future Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D). But Lieberman did not waver. He ran for the Senate as an independent. In fact he billed himself as an “independent Democrat.”

This was a rhetorical sleight-of-hand of by Lieberman. He was in fact independent. That’s how he ran on the ballot. But Lieberman established himself as someone who did not kowtow to the party line. Yet, he still considered himself, politically, a “Democrat.” 

Shortly after Lieberman announced he was running as an “independent,” I struggled to characterize the senator for news purposes. I wound up one day speaking to a source in the office of the Secretary of the Senate. Senators naturally decide to caucus either with the Republicans or Democrats. But the source explained to me that at the time, senators must tell that office how they wished to be identified for publications, like in the Congressional Record.

The source said senators obviously could present themselves as a Democrat, Republican or Independent. But “Socialist “or “Green” wasn’t out of the question.

JOE LIEBERMAN, FORMER CONNECTICUT SENATOR, 2000 VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE, DEAD AT 82

I inquired if the office recognized the term Lieberman was using: “independent Democrat.”

The source said that was a moniker the office had never heard of.

Lieberman won re-election as an independent that fall. But he continued to caucus with the Democrats. Kind of like what Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., does now. She had been a “Democrat” but switched to “Independent” in December, 2022. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Angus King, I-Maine, have always associated with the Senate Democratic Caucus. But neither listed themselves as “Democrats” when they entered the Senate. 

That’s always been the thing about divining Lieberman’s political taxonomy. He wasn’t fish nor fowl. And his term “independent Democrat” wasn’t even formally recognized in the Senate. 

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) speaks at a panel hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran – U.S. Representative Office (NCRI-US) at the Willard InterContinental Hotel on August 17, 2022, in Washington, DC. The NCRI-US held the panel to mark the 20 years since they held their first press conference in 2002 on their perceived threat of Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

That says a lot.

In fact, maybe the best way to describe Lieberman wasn’t as an “independent Democrat.” He was just “Lieberman.”

Lieberman started to catch heat from Democrats in September, 1998.

Then-President Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. The President testified in a video deposition that he had an “improper physical relationship” with Lewinsky. Lieberman then upbraided the President in a dramatic Senate floor speech. 

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“The president apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age and did so in the workplace. In the vicinity of the Oval Office,” said Lieberman. “Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful. It sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family.”

Lieberman’s oration shook Washington. His colleagues viewed Lieberman as the conscience of the Senate. Lieberman’s words reflected what many others hoped they could say – but were unwilling to do so. Or perhaps, even incapable.

“It is wrong and unacceptable, and should be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability,” said Lieberman of the President’s conduct.

Then-Vice President Al Gore was aiming to succeed Mr. Clinton in the White House. Gore was the odds-on favorite to secure the Democratic nomination in 2000. But Gore had a problem. He was Clinton’s Vice President. 

Lieberman’s speech about the President resonated with Gore. After all, Gore needed to put some distance between himself and the President he served. Selecting Lieberman as his running mate did just that.

But even though Lieberman nearly became Vice President after the controversial 2000 election, late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tinkered with tapping him as his running mate eight years later. Lieberman campaigned on behalf of McCain, the GOP’s 2008 standard-bearer, against future President Obama. Remember that Mr. Obama was a Democratic senator from Illinois at the time. Lieberman even spoke on behalf of McCain at the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn.

There were recriminations after the election. Some Democrats wanted to boot him out of the caucus. Or, at the very least, strip Lieberman of his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Senate Democrats ultimately voted 42-13 to keep his gavel – even though he supported McCain for President.

“It’s all over with,” said late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Lieberman later said his colleagues welcomed him back into the fold “in the spirit of reconciliation.”

But Lieberman remained a pebble in the shoe of the Democratic party. He’s one of the senators responsible for killing the so-called “public option” during the health care reform debate of 2009-10. And as recently as March 18, Lieberman appeared on Fox, seconds after a live report from yours truly. Lieberman rebuked Senate Majority Leader Schumer, D-N.Y., over his sharp criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

“I think really it was a case of, of a high elected official in the U.S. taking advantage of a friend. And you wouldn’t do this with a casual ally or certainly an enemy. But to call out, one of our closest allies to the world, Israel, a democracy when it’s a war and tell its people they should dump their Prime Minister?” said Lieberman “That was a diplomatic red line that I have never in all my years seen crossed. It is outrageous.” 

Lieberman was hard to classify. As a political animal goes, his species and genus weren’t clear compared to his contemporaries.

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Describing him as an “independent Democrat? That’s close.

But he was best cataloged as simply “Lieberman.”

Fox News’ Brooke Curto contributed to this report.

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