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 MoveOn.org, 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.
Lieberman reached the peak of his popularity as Al Gore's running mate in 2000. But his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 flopped, in part because he was out of step with most party politicians on the war.
The latest flap began after Lieberman traveled to Iraq last month. He returned to write a Nov. 29 Wall Street Journal column in which he contradicted a core Democratic criticism -- that the administration has no strategy for victory in Iraq. "Yes, we do," Lieberman wrote, brushing aside calls from Democrats and some Republicans for Bush to set a timetable for bringing troops home.
"What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory," Lieberman wrote. Bush repeated the statement in a speech meant to bolster sagging public support for the war.
Then, at a Tuesday news conference on Iraq, Lieberman gave his party a tongue-lashing for pressing Bush too forcefully.
"History will judge us harshly if we do not stretch across the divide of distrust to join together to complete our mission successfully in Iraq," Lieberman said. "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."
Many Democrats were appalled by Lieberman's comments, although few were willing to reprimand him publicly.
"Senator Lieberman is past the point of being taken seriously in the caucus because everything he does is seen as advancing his own self-interest, instead of the Democratic interest," said a senior Senate Democratic aide, who described discontent in that chamber as "widespread."
The liberal antiwar group MoveOn.org is weighing whether to back a challenger to Lieberman. MoveOn Washington director Tom Matzzie called Weicker "a very attractive candidate" but added that "the easiest way to take out Joe Lieberman would be in a Democratic primary."
Weicker was a Republican when Lieberman ousted him from the Senate in 1988. Weicker is facing some pressure to enter the race as a Democrat but says he is not much happier with that party on Iraq.
"The Democratic silence has been deafening on this for the past two years," Weicker said in an interview. "I have no more respect for them." But if Lieberman doesn't begin to distance himself from Bush's war policies, he said, "that's it -- we go to the mat."
Lieberman said the backlash against him deepens a concern that he has harbored for much of his political career: the lack of civility in Washington. In war matters in particular, he said, "politics should stop at the water's edge."