The past year and a half has seen an endless revolving catalog of political figures step up to deliver their version of an elevator pitch for why Democrats and the US as a whole shouldn’t move left — often figures with deeply vested interests in making the case. This has only intensified in recent months, since DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory over New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, which prompted a series of definitely good-faith pronouncements from conservatives warning Democrats to reject her message for their own good.
Former Connecticut senator and sometime-Democrat Joe Lieberman is the latest to try his hand at this burgeoning genre, with a Wall Street Journal op-ed urging voters to cast their votes for the defeated Crowley, who mysteriously still hasn’t been able to take his name off the ballot in New York’s 14th district. His case is laughable, but it’s worth remembering who exactly Lieberman is.
Lieberman was a reliable Bush ally on the “war on terror” and other issues, and had long been a suspect Democrat, let alone progressive lawmaker in general. His entire career was built on his conservatism, having beaten (with the support of William F. Buckley) liberal Republican Lowell Weicker in 1988 in a campaign where he supported bombing Libya, invading Grenada, and maintaining the US freeze-out of Cuba, all of which Weicker opposed. Lieberman also supported the death penalty for drug traffickers, a stealth form of school prayer, and strict spending cuts for the purpose of balancing the budget.
When Lieberman entered Congress, legendary racist Strom Thurmond came by to pay his respects, telling the young Lieberman, “I understand we think a lot alike in the way we do things,” chilling words that any decent human being would’ve responded to with “I certainly hope not.” What did Lieberman actually say? “Yes, I think we do.”
Through the nineties, Lieberman supported the introduction of school vouchers for charter schools, pushed for dismantling affirmative action, called for reducing the capital-gains tax, and advocated for “reforming” social security (he would later support the younger Bush’s attempt to privatize it). He was, after all, a five-term chairman of the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council, beginning in 1995.
As Lieberman repeatedly explained, he thought economic populism was a “sad foundation for a program” and railed against “class warfare” (none of which of course stopped Lieberman from later running TV ads lambasting his 2006 antiwar challenger as a “Greenwich millionaire”).
Lieberman’s resume at this time also features his successful efforts to water down and eventually kill President Bill Clinton’s attempt at health care reform, his urging of Clinton to sign the 1996 welfare bill, and his support for the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act. He was also a tireless moral scold in the mold of Helen Lovejoy, spending that decade and beyond relentlessly complaining about, and threatening to censor, the supposedly immoral content on TV, radio, and in video games.
Other than his appearance on the fundamentalist Christian 700 Club, this moralizing reached its high point with Lieberman’s public castigation of Clinton in 1998 over his affair with his intern, which won him heaps of plaudits from Republicans — and, ironically, put him on the presidential ticket with Al Gore, who was trying to distance himself from the disgraced president.
As the Bush campaign gleefully pointed out, Gore had chosen a running mate “whose positions are more similar to Governor Bush’s than to his own,” necessitating Lieberman to start pretending to believe in the opposite of everything he had ever stood for, including suddenly voicing support for affirmative action, a performance that fooled no one. Sure enough, after Gore lost, Lieberman and his friends proceeded to admit what everyone knew: that he had very obviously been lying to the American people for the preceding few months.
Like most fiscal hawks, Lieberman is also an actual hawk, unconcerned with government spending when it’s in the service of bombing some far-off country or another. It’s hard to find a war Lieberman hasn’t supported, from both wars against Iraq (he was one of only ten senate Democrats to vote for the first), to the Balkans in the nineties, to Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, an ambiguous commitment in Ukraine, and many others.
If you’re a fan of the bloated, largely unaccountable, centralized security bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, thank Joe Lieberman: he not only came up with the idea, but introduced the legislation that created it. He also supported the terrifying John Bolton’s appointments, both under Bush and now Trump, citing his “strong moral compass.”
After assuring people that “there is not one inch of difference between me and the commander in chief” on Iraq, Lieberman then began declaring that he was “the one candidate who can defeat George Bush,” warning that “a candidate who was opposed to the war against Saddam, who has called for the repeal of all of the Bush tax cuts” — meaning 2003-era Howard Dean — “could lead the Democrat Party into the political wilderness for a long time to come.” Voters disagreed, and Lieberman, who went into the 2004 Democratic primary the best known candidate, bowed out of the race when he couldn’t even win more delegates than ex-General Wesley Clark.
By 2006, it was little wonder Republicans from the White House on down successfully mobilized to save Lieberman’s political career from an antiwar Democrat, Ned Lamont, given Lieberman’s closeness to the GOP. As early as 1994, he was getting public praise from top Republicans like Bob Dole and close friend John McCain, and GOP-supporting business officials cluttered his campaign finance reports.
“I really like Joe Lieberman,” said Roger Stone, then simply a powerful Republican fixer, citing the fact he wasn’t a “knee-jerk liberal.” On the eve of the 2004 election, Lieberman compared Bush’s “record of strong, consistent support for Israel” with the “doubts” around Democrat John Kerry.
Lieberman pulled in a similar performance in 2008, when, now officially an “Independent” though still liable to identify himself as a Democrat, he attacked Obama at the GOP convention, and campaigned with GOP nominee McCain, both against the pleas of party members. Furious Democrats inexplicably let Lieberman keep his coveted chairmanship anyway, and he spent the rest of his time in the Senate once again watering down health care reform through ever-shifting goalposts, this time by making Democrats to drop the public option, then refusing to support an expansion of Medicare. He also found time to support a balanced budget amendment, advocate for stripping Americans of citizenship, and suggesting newspapers could be criminally investigated.
It should surprise no one that Lieberman has flirted with joining the Trump administration, given his frequent praise for the president. He was the only “Democrat” to attend Trump’s embassy-moving event in Jerusalem, something he had made possible through legislation twenty-three years earlier, when helped pass the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act.
With any luck, the absurdity of the idea of Lieberman urging Democrats not to move left for their own sake will be a jump-the-shark moment for this tiresome brand of pontificating. Don’t hold your breath.