Joe Lieberman: The Resilience and Missteps of a Political Maverick

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Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Senator who had a turblent relationship with the Democratic Party, is reportedly set to announce he will not seek a fifth term in office.

An official announcement about Mr. Lieberman's 2012 campaign is excepted Wednesday. News outlets — from the New York Times to Huffington Post — are reporting he will not seek re-election. 

It would be the end of a long career for the 69 year-old Yale-educated lawyer, one in which he swung dramatically from the center of the Democratic Party to their bullseye after he became an independent following his loss to Ned Lamont in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Whether Mr. Lieberman could have won another re-election to his senate seat is unclear. Although he played a crucial role in repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell - a goal of national gay rights activists - he has firmly ensconced himself in the diminishing moderate branch of his party.

In 2012, the incumbent Democratic president whom Mr. Lieberman did not support will likely draw out the kind of voters who have always disliked the senator. On the other side of the aisle, a rising Tea Party movement, spearheaded by Sarah Palin and other polarizing figures, are likely to draw just as many voters unimpressed with Lieberman's lingering sympathies for his colleague's Democratic agenda.

There is an alternate view of Mr. Lieberman. That of a principled statesmen whose lengthy career was guided by his inner conscious but felled but two political miscalculations.

"The fact that he takes seriously the terrorist threat and is willing to confront the base of his own party tells you a lot about this character," said former Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican of Connecticut, in an interview Tuesday night.

"He could have done it differently and continue to have the support of his own party … and be able to win election after election," said Mr. Shays, who declined to say whether he heard directly from the Senator about his future.

The first miscalculation came when Mr. Lieberman was propelled onto the national stage as Democrat Al Gore's vice presidential candidate. As the first Jewish politician on a major party's national ticket, it was a history-making moment.

Mr. Lieberman was, at the time, seeking re-election to his senate seat back home. So, he ran for both at the same time. That divided attention may have doomed his ticket, said Mr. Shays.

"Had he spent three more hours in Florida, they could have gotten the 500 more votes," said Shays, referring off-handedly to Democrats narrow, and controversial, loss in that state, which tipped the outcome.

While the national party embraced Mr. Lieberman in 2000, he was never one of their favorites.

Lieberman, like many U.S. politicians, was a hawkish defender of Israel, and sensitive to fostering a healthy business climate back home. But he had supported the Republican-pushed reforms to welfare, and was an advocate of school vouchers.

There was also the Lewinsky speech.

In 1998, Lieberman was one of the first Democrats to admonish President Clinton for his sexual encounters with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

"The President's sexual misconduct and his deliberate efforts to deceive the American people and our judicial system have had a serious and adverse impact on the nation," Lieberman said at the time.

While acknowledging the President "sought atonement" for his behavior, Mr. Lieberman told his colleagues more needed to be done.

"If the House chooses not to impeach, as seems likely, then we must censure. Congress must provide a decisive ending and a strong statement that makes clear to ourselves and posterity that we are a nation that understands the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood," he said.

"We must clearly explain the expectations we have of our leaders, present and future, and serve notice that if the President is guilty of wrongdoing he must suffer, at the least, public embarrassment and reproach," said Lieberman.

When Mr. Gore picked Mr. Lieberman as his running mate two years later, it was not a nod to the Democrat's progressive base. No matter. Gore and Lieberman lost in 2000, with Mr. Gore retreating to the private sector, and Mr. Lieberman returning to Washington for another term in the senate.

In 2004, Mr. Lieberman made a brief and unspectacular bid for president. The campaign launched in January of 2003, and by February the following year, he withdrew. Interestingly, Lieberman was not supported in that race by his 2000 running mate, Mr. Gore.

By the time of Mr. Lieberman's next re-election, in 2006, he had staked out a more conservative profile.

Mr. Lieberman supported the military effort in Iraq, and voted to reauthorize the PATRIOT ACT (although not its controversial electronic wiretap rules). In 2003, Mr. Lieberman said the country was correct in going after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, even though doubts about his military capabilities were surfacing. Mr. Lieberman, bucking the growing anti-war movement in his party, voted against withdrawing troops out of Iraq.

In 2006, an independently wealthy businessman, Ned Lamont, waged a Democratic primary challenge to Mr. Lieberman, almost exclusively based on the senator's support for the war. Mr. Lamont rode a wave of anti-war anger, and sparked a resurgence among the Democratic Party's liberal base. (The same group who felt they had been slighted just two years earlier, when their preferred candidate, nearby Vermont Governor Howard Dean lost out to the Massachusetts' junior senator, John Kerry, a Washington institution.)

Mr. Lieberman lost the Democratic primary, but continued running in the general election, as an independent. The Clintons took a nuanced approach to Mr. Lieberman's second candidacy. President Clinton - now retired - endorsed Mr. Lieberman, while Hillary Clinton, who was preparing for her own presidential bid, stayed with her party's nominee.

After the stunning defeat in the primary, Mr. Lamont was unable to expand his appeal to Connecticut's voters, who wanted to hear about other issues. Also, many were used to the familiar face of their senior senator, and turned off by the nationalization of their local senate race.

Once re-elected, Mr. Lieberman found himself, again, in an unexpected position: coveted.

The Senate Mr. Lieberman was returning to was narrowly divided, and Democrats could not afford to lose him. He was allowed to keep his seniority and committee chairmanship.

In 2008, Mr. Lieberman traveled further across the aisle than he had ever before, endorsing fellow Senator, Republican John McCain, for president, not just in the GOP primary, but for the general election also. Mr. Lieberman was even a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis.

There, he  made his second political miscalculation, according to Mr. Shays.

"It's very intoxicating speaking at a convention," said Mr. Shays. "It's very tempting to go further than logic would dictate."

At the convention, Mr. Lieberman didn't just endorse Mr. McCain, but was critical of Barack Obama, his own party's nominee. (Mr. Lieberman was elected as an Independent, but he caucused with the Democratic Party.)

Azi Paybarah is the author of The Empire, a blog that covers everything you need to know about New York state politics and governance.