Lieberman Wins Republican Friends, Democratic Enemies With Support for War

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, shown speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference in September 2004, has scolded other Democrats about not supporting the war.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, shown speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference in September 2004, has scolded other Democrats about not supporting the war. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2005

Five years ago, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was one of President Bush's arch political rivals. Now many in his party complain that he sounds more like Bush's running mate.

The Connecticut Democrat's strong public defense of Bush's handling of the Iraq war has provided the White House with an invaluable rejoinder to intensifying criticism from other Democrats. In public statements and a newspaper column, Lieberman has argued that Bush has a strategy for victory in Iraq, has dismissed calls for the president to set a timetable for troop withdrawal, and has warned that it would be a "colossal mistake" for the Democratic leadership to "lose its will" at this critical point in the war.

Lieberman's contrarian behavior is not out of character -- he is far more hawkish than the majority of Democrats, and he has vigorously backed invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein from the beginning. But the latest defense of Bush and his stinging salvos at some in his own party have infuriated Democrats, who say he is undercutting their effort to forge a consensus on the war and draw clear distinctions with Republicans before the 2006 elections.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is troubled by Lieberman's comments, Reid's aides said. "I've talked to Senator Lieberman, and unfortunately he is at a different place on Iraq than the majority of the American people," Reid said yesterday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters this week that "I completely disagree" with Lieberman. She added: "I believe that we have a responsibility to speak out if we think that the course of action that our country is on is not making the American people safer, making our military stronger and making the region more stable."

Liberal political groups, including Democracy for America and, are considering ways to retaliate, including backing a challenge to Lieberman in next year's Democratic primary. Former senator and Connecticut governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr., an opponent of the war, has vowed to run as an independent, absent a strong Democratic or Republican challenge to Lieberman.

The administration, on the other hand, can't stop gushing over Lieberman. Vice President Cheney called him "a fine U.S. senator," and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman contrasted him with his "retreat and defeat" Democratic colleagues. White House spokesman Scott McClellan cited Lieberman, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee, as an exception in a party otherwise "trying to score political points off the situation."

There have even been rumors that Lieberman is being considered as a replacement for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, if the embattled Pentagon boss retires. Lieberman dismisses the speculation as a "Washington fantasy." But he caused tongues to wag when he had breakfast with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon on Thursday.

Lieberman shrugs off the criticism by fellow Democrats and seems perfectly comfortable with the compliments he has received from Republicans about his views on Iraq. "They're not misquoting me," he said in an interview this week. "I've had this position for a long time -- that we need to finish the job."

But Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, acknowledged that his words in support of the administration's war policy carry a different weight. "Somehow it gets more notice when it's coming from a member of the other party," he said.

Lieberman, 63, a former Connecticut attorney general, has long been admired within his party for his independence of thought and his civility, although he is more conservative than most Democrats on cultural issues and foreign policy. He played a leading role in helping pass the Persian Gulf War resolution in January 1991, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and he called for a "final victory" over Hussein.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Lieberman strongly backed Bush's call for a war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Later that year, he was one of 10 lawmakers who signed a letter urging Bush to target Iraq next.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company