Politics / March 28, 2024

Joe Lieberman and the Venality of Elite Bipartisanship

The late senator embodied a consensus of militarism and plutocracy.

Jeet Heer
Joe Lieberman
Joe Lieberman in 2010. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The many eulogists of Joe Lieberman, who died Wednesday at age 82, are leaning heavily into two words: bipartisanship and morality. Representative Henry Cuellar, who belongs to the shrinking tribe of conservative Democrats that Lieberman adhered to for most of his life, voiced a common sentiment: “Joe’s focus on bipartisanship should be a model for us all in today’s polarizing political climate.” According to The New York Timesobituary, Lieberman in 1998 became “a national voice of morality as the first major Democrat to rebuke President Bill Clinton for his sexual relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinski.”

Both these terms of praise certainly describe Lieberman as he would have liked the world to see him, but his version of bipartisanship and morality also made him, for intertwined reasons, one of the worst American public figures of recent decades.

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The unreflecting use of “bipartisan” as a positive term ignores the fact that really bad policies, as well as good ones, can be advanced when politicians work across party lines. Lieberman’s version of bipartisan boiled down to support for militarism and plutocracy, which won him fans among the donor class and right-wingers but did a great disservice to the nation.

Lieberman’s most significant act of bipartisanship was his strong support of George W. Bush’s foreign policy in the wake of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Lieberman was a relentless cheerleader for all the disastrous decisions of that era: the suppression of civil liberties under the Patriot Act, the consolidation of the surveillance state in the Department of Homeland Security (whose creation he helped midwife), the deployment of lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to sell an illegal and immoral war that led to hundreds of thousands of civilians being turned into refugees as well as thousands being maimed, tortured and killed. As a Democrat who was one of Bush’s loudest advocates, Lieberman practiced bipartisanship with a vengeance.

Lieberman’s repeated lies about weapons of mass destruction—a fabulation he continued uttering long after it had been definitively refuted by reality—throws into sharp relief the very narrow and constricted view of morality held by his eulogists. Lieberman was essentially a conservative, albeit one who adapted to the times and his Connecticut voters’ preferences on issues like abortion and a narrow form of gay rights. But beyond these issues, Lieberman, like many conservatives, practiced a vaunted morality that amounted to little more than sexual prudery.

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It’s worth revisiting Lieberman’s famous speech denouncing Bill Clinton. In that speech, Lieberman only obliquely and glancingly acknowledges the feminist grounds for objecting to Clinton’s behavior: that this was workplace harassment by an older and senior employer of a much younger woman. Lieberman nowhere mentions the Clinton White House’s genuinely vile campaign of slander against Lewinsky. Instead, the burden of Lieberman’s complaint is that Clinton’s behavior was unseemly and created too much talk about oral sex. According to Lieberman, “something very sad and sordid has happened in American life when I cannot watch the news on television with my 10-year-old daughter anymore.”

Will no one think of the children! This was the same spirit of paternalistic tut-tutting that led Lieberman to join Tipper Gore’s ridiculous moral crusade against rap music. As a public moralist, Lieberman resembled the pious frauds who populate the novels of Charles Dickens, oily and unctuous figures like Uriah Heep and Seth Pecksniff. Like Heep and Pecksniff, Lieberman was a monster of obtuse self-satisfaction.

By any measure, lying to promote an unnecessary war is far more immoral than explicit rap lyrics or even Bill Clinton’s degraded sex life. Nor did Lieberman ever stop lying. On January 20, 2011, Leiberman appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and asserted that “the evidence is very clear that [Saddam] was developing weapons of mass destruction…. Charles Duelfer conducted the most comprehensive report on behalf of our government…he found, and proved I think, that Saddam…was developing chemical and biological weapons.”

Lieberman was challenged on this point by the pundit Arianna Huffington. This led to a telling exchange:

HUFFINGTON: Well, based on this completely unfounded assumption, I sincerely hope for the sake of the country that you do not become Secretary of Defense.

LIEBERMAN: Now Arianna, these are not unfounded. Go read the Duelfer Report.

HUFFINGTON: There is nothing in the report that proves anything that you have said.

LIEBERMAN: I don’t think you’ve read it, sweetheart.

That final comment was pure Joe Lieberman: condescending, elitist, sexist, and completely dishonest. As the journalist Jon Schwartz pointed out at the time, the Duelfer Report does not support Lieberman’s WMD fantasia.

On the level of economic policy, Lieberman’s much-praised bipartisanship meant he supported the politics of austerity that has helped make the United States a wildly unequal nation. He worked tirelessly to water down Obamacare and put the kibosh on the public option, which would have extended access to public healthcare to many under 65. This meant that millions of Americans currently have far worse healthcare than they would have if Lieberman’s Senate seat were held by a less plutocracy-friendly Democrat. As a wealthy senator, Lieberman enjoyed the best healthcare money can buy, a special privilege shared by members of Congress and the 1 percent.

Writing in Jacobin in 2018, Branko Marcetic astutely noted that Lieberman’s bipartisanship was a gift to the right:

Lieberman was a reliable Bush ally on the “war on terror” and other issues, and had long been a suspect Democrat, let alone progressive lawmaker in general. His entire career was built on his conservatism, having beaten (with the support of William F. Buckley) liberal Republican Lowell Weicker in 1988 in a campaign where he supported bombing Libya, invading Grenada, and maintaining the US freeze-out of Cuba, all of which Weicker opposed. Lieberman also supported the death penalty for drug traffickers, a stealth form of school prayer, and strict spending cuts for the purpose of balancing the budget.

Aside from Buckley, many other rabid reactionaries loved Joe Lieberman—for good reason. As Marcetic reports, when Lieberman first entered the Senate in 1989, he was greeted by the ancient reptilian racist Strom Thurmond, who said, “I understand we think a lot alike in the way we do things.” Lieberman responded, “Yes, I think we do.” Another serpentine scoundrel, the notorious dirty trickster Roger Stone, was also a Lieberman fan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, taking a break from leading a campaign of mass slaughter in Gaza, wrote an effusive tribute to Lieberman.

Of course, as a bipartisan hero of the Senate, Joe Lieberman is being mourned not just by the farouche right but by lawmakers across the spectrum. Lieberman truly had friends across party lines. He was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, and eight years later John McCain was briefly tempted to also make him his vice-presidential running mate. Donald Trump also wanted to work with Lieberman and toyed with the idea of nominating him to run the FBI.

But the fact that so many elite Democrats and Republicans both loved Lieberman says nothing good about the senator—or the American political system. For what they loved was the narrow, discredited consensus of militarism and plutocracy.

That consensus has been much battered in the 21st century as the Republicans have moved to the right and Democrats to the left. But in the aging mind of Joe Biden, only nine months younger than Lieberman, this sordid consensus retains a diminishing half-life. Biden still tries to push for a bipartisanship based on American global hegemony—and even seems prepared to risk his presidency on behalf of this ideal. But if Biden wants to be reelected, he’ll have to learn to curb his atavistic tendency to revert to Liebermanism.

Joe Lieberman is dead and soon will be buried. We can only hope that his political ideology joins him speedily in the grave.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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