When Democrats Retire

The news this week that Senator Kent Conrad, North Dakota’s senior senator, would not seek re-election was quickly swamped by word that Senator Joe Lieberman would be stepping down at the end of his turn as well. Conrad quickly ceded the spotlight to Lieberman, a darling of DC media and a favorite nemesis of liberal pundits. 

Lieberman has spent a career finding his way into the center of attention, while Conrad has spent his time under budget documents and behind data charts.  Ezra Klein quotes Senator Mitch McConnell calling Conrad “Chart Man.” The talk about Lieberman has often been much more colorful, varied and not always flattering, starting with his nicknames — from “Holy Joe” for his sanctimonious tendencies to “Senator Palpatine,” a reference to his uncanny resemblance to the Emperor of the Star Wars universe. It was Senator Lieberman himself who brought the phrase “Joementum” to the American public right before he cruised to a “three-way tie for third” (his polite re-branding of his fifth place results) in the 2004 New Hampshire primary.

Name-calling aside, what does it mean to lose two senior Democrats in the same week?  And should progressives see an opportunity or a concern that both retirees are viewed as two of the more conservative members of the caucus?

For one, it’s only one Democratic Senator. Joe Lieberman lost his Democratic primary and was elected on the “Connecticut for Lieberman” line (control of which was later snagged by alert, anti-Lieberman activists). The Democrats of Connecticut, who had admired his independence for years, grew sick of his unapologetic support for the Iraq War, his hawkish stances on Iran, his misguided leadership at the chair of Homeland Security committee and his delight at scolding progressives and undercutting their agenda in Washington. And while Washington pundits, and Lieberman himself, like to claim he’s being punished for his independence, his support at home has really dropped because of his judgment. He continues to repeat falsehoods about Iraq, as Glenn Greenwald notes at Salon, he relishes the opportunity to criticize the party that let him keep his gavel after he endorsed John McCain: that may have been independent, sure, but it was also just a real bad choice.

In Thursday’s New York Times, David Brooks refers to Lieberman as “a most valuable Democrat," arguing that keeping Lieberman in the Democratic caucus gave the President and Harry Reid the critical vote they needed on a range of issues. But what was the cost? Lieberman was a critical vote on health care reform after he killed the public option as well as the compromise to allow Americans over 55 to buy into our nation’s successful Medicare program. Ben Nelson was also the critical vote after demanding additional pork for the people of Nebraska. The House Democrats who fought to demonize family counseling and abortion providers were also critical votes. That doesn’t mean they made the legislation better.

Brooks claims that Lieberman was “loathed by many liberal activists.” What he misses is that Lieberman had lost the support of the voters of Connecticut, not just an activist class. Brooks praises Lieberman’s way of defying traditional labels (both were scheduled to participate in the No Labels launch last December), but even Connecticut’s famously independent electorate has grown tired of him. By last October, his approval rating was down to 31 percent. Even Linda McMahon was getting favorable reviews of over 40 percent at that time.


The Democratic caucus will be better without Lieberman. After the midterms, Ari Berman argued that a Democratic Party with greater ideological cohesion will be a stronger political force, and therefore, there was no reason to mourn the Blue Dog losses. The same argument could be made for the loss of Lieberman, who is likely to be replaced by a more dynamic progressive. Even if you don’t buy Berman’s logic, though, you might still see the problem Lieberman constantly presented the Democrats: as a favorite guest of mainstream media, he was often a loud voice opposing progressive legislation from within the caucus. Taking that pedestal from him is going to help the Senate Dems.

The same cannot be said for Senator Conrad. True, his comments on the deficit at times played into conservative frames and aggravated progressive activists and fellow Senators, but he rarely grandstanded to the extent of his colleague from Connecticut. He offered ideological diversity without undercutting party cohesion. And the Democrats are unlikely to find anyone else from North Dakota who can win and hold that seat.

The bigger issue, though, isn’t the politics of Connecticut and North Dakota. It’s the politics of the Democratic message. Conrad claims that he’s leaving the Senate to focus on our national debt from the outside. But what better platform for that effort than the US Senate? You don’t retire because you have more to say and more work to do; you retire when you feel like you’re running out of things to say and that your work is coming to an end. If the Democrats were pushing a dynamic agenda on independence from foreign oil (the other issue Conrad says he wants to focus on in private life), then a senator interested in that issue would want to remain in the Senate. If the Democrats were out to transform the economy, usher in a new era of investment in America and support an opportunity boom for all Americans, you would want to shape that work. If the Democrats in DC were standing up to the challenge of a generation, you would stand with them.

However, it would be hard to argue that there’s that momentum in Washington right now — which makes it easier to give up your seat without a fight. If you’re not willing to go down fighting, then you’re probably not willing to fight in the first place – and that, more than open seats in North Dakota and Connecticut – is the real concern for the Democrats.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."