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.)
For years Lieberman kept unhappy liberal Democrats muscled into his Connecticut coalition by maintaining a prochoice and generally pro-labor voting record, even as he pushed against affirmative action and evangelized the expansion of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. That worked through the presidencies of the first President Bush and of Lieberman’s protégé Clinton (whom Joe piously disowned during the Lewinsky controversy), and even carried him through his lackluster performance as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 (a double-DLC redux following Clinton-Gore.)
But after the attacks of September 11 Lieberman became the chief Democratic cheerleader for war in Iraq and for long-term involvement in Afghanistan. That’s when his ability to strong-arm began to wane. As chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee he tirelessly pushed the Patriot Act and other repressive legislation. By 2006 Connecticut Democrats finally had enough and dumped him in the primary. Lieberman held onto his seat in the general election only because the Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont of Greenwich, was so stupefyingly unskilled at political conversations beyond the country-club gates. Even with no sign of a charismatic Democrat ready to stir Connecticut citizens against him in 2012, all the data shows Lieberman on the ropes.
Who really cooked Lieberman’s goose? Barack Obama. Not because Obama as president falls all that far to Lieberman’s left—but because Obama as candidate offered a straightforward alternative to the tired nostrum that to win, Democrats have to be shills for big business and surrogates for conservative white men. Obama campaigned on a reinvigorated the American social contract, and the pursuit of peace instead of lives in war without end. In essence, Obama the candidate proposed: Democrats can win without pulling a Lieberman.
That, and not policy difference on Iraq and Afghanistan (which has turned out to be narrow), is why Lieberman, though continuing to caucus with Harry Reid’s Democrats, so enthusiastically backed John McCain in 2008. And that’s why, in last year’s healthcare debate, the old DLC holdouts like Lieberman, who threatened to filibuster public option, ended up looking not like pragmatists but spoilers and insurance industry touts. Lieberman’s isolation and political collapse are the outward signs of a bankrupt political strategy, and offer a cautionary tale both to Congressional Democrats and to a White House clearly divided internally over which economic policies and what approach to the war strengthen the president and the party going into 2012.
Lieberman wound up his announcement with a sentimental invocation of Huck Finn and Jim together traversing bends in the Mississipi. Fair enough: Mark Twain wrote in Hartford, after all. Listening to Lieberman’s avuncular farewell, though, brings back memories of his old antagonist Lowell Weicker, who when he was elected Governor in 1990 kept a very different Twain novel on his desk: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Ostensibly a satire of pious political hypocrisy, Connecticut Yankee ends with Twain’s harrowing vision of a field of battle, strewn with 25,000 soldiers lying annihilated by Gatling guns, the rotting corpses poisoning the air breathed by the victors: "We were in a trap, you see," Twain’s narrator declares, "a trap of our own making." As Joe Lieberman prepares to exit the stage, the poisonous costs and consequences of today’s wars—in American society as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan—will be his lingering legacy.