The Washington Post

Joe Lieberman has few regrets

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe talks with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) about his political career as he prepares to retire from the Senate. (The Washington Post)

If he could do it all over again, Joe Lieberman would not have been as tough on Barack Obama.

Lieberman, the former Democrat who was the vice-presidential nominee in 2000, famously bucked the party and supported Republican John McCain for president in 2008.

Lieberman gave a speech at the Republican National Convention in which he belittled Obama’s accomplishments, describing him as a “a gifted and eloquent young man, who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead.” But, he said, Obama had not yet “reached across party lines to accomplish anything significant” nor taken on “powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party to get something done.”

Lieberman, who has represented Connecticut in the Senate for 24 years, the past six as an independent, will retire when his term ends in January. As he departs, he says that he wishes that the party he left amid disagreements over the Iraq war would return to its roots as “a foreign policy/national security party.”

“Go back to President Truman, President Kennedy, President Clinton: These were internationalists who believed in keeping our military strong to protect our security, our freedom and our prosperity, and were willing to get engaged in the world to protect our values and our interests,” he said. Directly contradicting Obama’s worldview, Lieberman added: “We can’t ever be as prosperous at home and as good at home as we want to be unless we’re secure in the world. And we can’t be as positively engaged in the world unless we’re strong here at home.”

The convention speech came shortly after Obama returned to the Senate to cast a vote. The two senators exchanged words in a dark corner of the chamber, within view of reporters but out of earshot.

In an interview to mark his impending retirement, Lieberman called the conversation “private” but said, “It was serious at one point about what was going on in the campaign.”

“I congratulated him because it was clear he had clinched the nomination at that point,” Lieberman said. “And he said to me, ‘Look, thank you, but I understand that one of the reasons I have the opportunity I have now is because of what you’ve done in the past.’ I think he probably meant that I had run as the first Jewish American running for national office, so in that sense I broke a barrier, and maybe he felt that opened the doors wider for him. It was a very gracious thing for him to say.”

Lieberman said he doesn’t regret supporting McCain, the senator from Arizona, but if he could do it again, “I would have left out those few sentences” in his convention speech about Obama.

“It wasn’t what I was really about,” Lieberman said. “It wasn’t necessary to what I was doing at the convention, which was to affirmatively support my friend John McCain.”

In the end, Obama won, and Lieberman and McCain returned to the Senate, where they remain critics of the president’s foreign policy — and where Lieberman is still willing to critique the Democratic Party.

Although originally elected to the Senate as a Democrat, Lieberman served as a party contrarian from the start. As a freshman, Democrats tapped Lieberman to tape the party’s response to Ronald Reagan’s final Saturday morning radio address in January 1989. Party operatives drafted a speech and expected Lieberman to read it verbatim. But he went in a different direction.

“Mr. President, we salute you,” Lieberman said, praising Reagan’s love of country, his “fervent devotion to freedom” and for upholding “the values of faith, flag and family that we hold so dear.”

The move upset Democrats, who wanted one last chance to attack the retiring president. But Michael Lewan, Lieberman’s former chief of staff, said the speech was an early example of the senator’s strategy of taking what he believes to be the most principled course of action.

“He’s nothing but surprising and occasionally confusing to all of us, even those who love him,” Lewan said.

“He’s an intelligent patriot,” Lewan added. “It’s easy to be a patriot if you wrap yourself around the flag on any issue. But Lieberman, while he certainly knows when it’s appropriate to stand and salute, he also knows when it’s appropriate to stand and ask penetrating questions of whoever is president.”

Lieberman famously condemned Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and regularly disagrees with Obama on foreign policy. Less remembered in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is that he held firm against George W. Bush’s initial opposition to establishing the Department of Homeland Security. In the 10 years since steering its authorizing legislation through Congress, Lieberman has served as DHS’s chief overseer, critic and cheerleader.

“The measure of success for me is, are we safer today than we would be if DHS did not exist? And my answer to that is a resounding yes,” he said.

He said a bit of luck helped DHS thwart two terrorism attempts — in Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and in Times Square in 2011 — and he realizes that luck may run out one day.

“You have to live with that. We’re a big, open country with enormous, huge borders,” he said. “We’ve tried very hard to improve our homeland security without compromising personal liberty, and when you do that, at some point, somebody’s going to break through.”

As he prepares to depart, Lieberman said he is focusing on his successes and doing his best to “block bad news” from the past. Recalling the 2000 presidential campaign, he said that he is grateful to Al Gore for the experience but that memories of the prolonged Florida recount make him frustrated and angry.

“We did, you know, get a half-million more votes than Bush and [Dick] Cheney,” he said with a laugh.

Still, the 2000 loss led to the most productive stretch of his Senate career, a turn of fate for which he is grateful. “I was raised in a family that taught me that life is about today and tomorrow, not yesterday,” he said.

Alice Crites contributed to this story.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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