Once the most unbeatable Democrat in Connecticut, now an estranged independent senator facing likely defeat in 2012, Joe Lieberman this week announced his retirement at the rare moment when progressives might be inclined to think warmly of him. For months, Lieberman has been working hard for the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" (DADT), and his leadership on this essential gay rights issue is real. But it comes at the tail end of Joe’s many years as the best Democratic friend of the right-wingers who promoted DADT, and obscures his ignominious support for the Defense of Marriage Act and for DADT itself when it was first proposed in 1993.
How Lieberman landed on the political skids is a cautionary tale for today’s vexed Democrats, wondering whether this is a moment to rush to the center. Lieberman spent his political youth at the feet of John Bailey, John F. Kennedy’s DNC chairman and Connecticut’s most successful old-school Democratic boss. Lieberman relished that the old-style party politicking; he wrote books rhapsodizing it, and dreamed, following the Democratic debacle years of 1968 and 1972, of resuscitating Bailey’s near-comatose coalition of ideological liberals and socially conservative working-class ward politicians. As a state legislator on the 1970s and Connecticut attorney general in the 1980s Lieberman patented a style of ideological shape-shifting that Bill Clinton (who as a law student volunteered on Lieberman’s first campaign) later made the trademark of his presidency. As attorney general in the administration of Governor Bill O’Neill (mush-mouthed heir to the once-invulnerable Bailey machine), Lieberman won the support of liberals and unaffiliated suburbanites with showy environmental and consumer-protection lawsuits, then feinted to the right on social or economic issues whenever it kept O’Neill and his cronies—or Connecticut’s insurance and defense industries—smiling. He fought in court to stop Medicaid funding for abortion; he even joined O’Neill, year after year, in crossing a boisterous National Organization for Women picket line to join the dinosaurs at the annual all-male crony banquet of the Knights of St. Patrick in New Haven.
Lieberman was an early adherent of the theory that to regain voters, Democrats had to run away from civil rights, identity politics and antiwar activism, and reflect instead the values of business and social conservatives, a theory which led him, in 1985, to join Al Gore, Clinton and other centrists in signing on with the Democratic Leadership Council. In 1988 he took that theory into the lab and used it on Senator Lowell Weicker, the last genuine maverick Republican and an irrepressible civil libertarian who infuriated both Nixon and Reagan. Though a Democrat, Lieberman worked in cahoots with the Buckley clan, running far to the right of a senator who had put the Constitution above party loyalty in the Watergate hearings. Once in the Senate Lieberman howled with Bill Bennett against the evils of pop music; preached the privatization of Social Security; and sang in the choir of religious conservatives to promote parochial-school vouchers. (He was eager to vote in favor of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination despite Anita Hill’s sexual harassment testimony, until top women on his staff told him in no uncertain terms that they’d never forgive him.)