Sen. Joe Lieberman — just 12 years after taking the stage in Los Angeles as the Democratic vice presidential nominee — was not invited to this year’s Democratic convention. Or the Republican convention. Over the years, Lieberman (I-Conn.) has broken a number of barriers — marching with Martin Luther King Jr., and becoming the first Jew on a presidential ticket. Toward the end of his career, however, this nation’s ideological segregation proved impossible to overcome. Lieberman’s political homelessness is less a statement on his remarkably consistent views than on a party system where moderation has become heresy.
In 2000, Lieberman’s centrism was part of his appeal. He speculates to me that Al Gore chose him because he was “identified with the DLC wing of the party.” (The now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council attempted to project a more centrist image.) Lieberman also thinks his politically “moderate speech on Clinton and Lewinsky” played a role — a strong moral indictment of Clinton’s shabby conduct delivered on the Senate floor.
But there were immediate suspicions among Democrats. “In the time between the announcement and the convention,” he says, “the interest groups of the Democratic Party were uneasy about me. I had positions the teachers’ unions didn’t like on vouchers and tenure laws. . . . I had been in the civil rights movement, but during the 1990s questioned quota programs. . . .
“As parties gather at their convention, the decisions are already made,” he reflects. “The drama is underneath. It becomes an occasion for various interest groups to ask for and receive deference.”
Lieberman dutifully made the rounds of reassurance. But his big speech in 2000 is worth rereading for its moderation and generosity of spirit. He referred to his opponents as “decent and likable men,” and quoted from “my friend John McCain.” He praised forceful military action in Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as American intervention in the first Gulf War. He complained that “standards of decency and civility have eroded” and called for renewal of “the moral center of this nation.”
“As I accepted nomination in 2000,” he recalls, “I wanted to remind progressive interest groups of my background on civil rights and domestic programs. But I wanted to be true to myself: to be strong on defense and the use of military power to support our values. I remember thinking after the speech that the applause on the national security lines was less than some others.”
Asked how his former party has changed (Lieberman was reelected to the Senate in 2006 as an independent), he initially focuses on security issues. “I came into politics as part of the JFK generation. My vision was Harry Truman and Scoop Jackson, progressive on domestic policies and conservative on foreign policy.” Lieberman saw that vision undermined by general Democratic opposition to the Gulf War in 1990, “which was maybe partisan, but I worried was ideology.” Bill Clinton, he says, “halted these changes,” particularly in Bosnia. But, over time, “the instinct is not to be as pro-defense.”
Lieberman also describes a “decisive turn” on economics that is “not good for the Democratic Party.” “You can’t have jobs without growth,” he says. “I hope it doesn’t become the class-warfare party, turning poor against rich, turning the middle class against the wealthy. It doesn’t work. The middle class wants to be upper class.” While he endorses the tax increases contained in the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, he also urges the Democratic Party to “remain the opportunity party, JFK’s rising-tide party.”
And Lieberman argues that religion and values need to have a place in the Democratic appeal. While working on the 1996 Democratic platform, Lieberman says he noticed that “the preceding few had an omission: the name of God. It is part of who we are as a people. I asked, have you checked any polling lately? God is running ahead of any living politician. So we put in a reference.” Leaders, he says, should “connect with the majority by reflecting their best values and living by them.” Republicans have often “unsettled people” with talk of religious values. But the alternative is not to be “neutral or mute.” “People need sources of morality for good behavior,” he argues, “and there is none better than religion.”
“I don’t know how much Democrats want to hear my advice,” Lieberman laughingly concedes. But it is an indictment of both main parties that a supporter of civil rights, economic justice, strong defense, economic opportunity and religious values should end his service as a party of one.