Independent’s Eye by Joe Gandelman
And so in the end Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s “Jo-mentum” became “No-mentum.” The news that Lieberman would not seek re-election is being pointed to as an example of how centrists can’t survive.
Is that what happened? Is Arizona Senator John McCain’s best bud yet one more example of an independent, centrist politician falling victim to ideologues out to get him or seeking to exclude him? Was he squeezed to political death in a political pincer? Or is it perhaps a bit more complex than that? The answer: it’s more complex.
I’ve always been ambivalent about Lieberman.
I’m from Connecticut where, in 1988, he defeated my political hero, Lowell Weicker, Jr., for Senate — winning by less than 1 percent with the backing of many Republicans.
An elderly relative of mine met Lieberman before he became Senator and called him a “sourpuss.” She STILL does when I mention his name.
Still, he seemed the quintessential centrist when he ran as Vice President with Al Gore in 2000. And my respect for him grew when my favorite centrist blogger, author Marshall “Bullmoose” Wittmann, went to work for him. What happened next is legend: Lieberman broke with his party on Iraq, and lost a grudge match with the Democratic left, which defeated him in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic primary. He triumphed in the general election as independent, went to the Senate and cast votes that sometimes favored one side or another.
Does that explain his retirement and why he is left with lousy poll numbers in Connecticut? Perhaps a bigger reason is that Lieberman became part of the country’s polarizing talk radio political culture.
In 2008 he earned the disgust of many Democrats and independent voters due to his strident comments about Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama. A taste:
“In my opinion, the choice could not be more clear: between one candidate, John McCain, who’s had experience, been tested in war and tried in peace, another candidate who has not. Between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not.”
So let me get this straight, Joe: McCain put the country first when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate? (Just wondering…)
And then there was this (in)famous response to a question from Fox News’ senior Judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano:
“NAPOLITANO: Hey Sen. Lieberman, you know Barack Obama, is he a Marxist as Bill Kristol says might be the case in today’s New York Times? Is he an elitist like your colleague Hillary Clinton says he is?
LIEBERMAN: Well, you know, I must say that’s a good question”¦..I’d hesitate to say he’s a Marxist, but he’s got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America.”
Another time he charged that Obama was “was prepared to accept retreat and defeat” in Iraq.
Is Lieberman symbolic of how tough it is for thoughtful centrists to survive? Reality: Everyone could sense how Lieberman seemed to relish the power of deciding destinies with his swing vote and continuing his grudge match with the Democratic left. And when his seeming allies on the right counted on him to join McCain in blocking the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” gays in the military repeal, Lieberman, with a great flourish, sided with the Democrats and was a key force in winning that long-overdue repeal. This brought him (short-lived) praise from the left.
But in the end, what did Lieberman in were not his centrist or all-over-the-place policy stands, but his image-damaging, hack, partisan rhetoric and the sense both sides got that he relished and flaunted his role as someone who didn’t belong to either party but was desperately needed by them.
In the end, what did him in is that too many in both parties concluded what my relative concluded long ago: that Joe Lieberman was a political “sourpuss.”
Copyright 2010 Joe Gandelman
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and can be booked to speak at your event at mavenproductions.com.
Follow Joe Gandelman on Twitter @joegandelman.