Asked to look back on his remarkable 41 years in politics, highlighted by his 2000 run for the vice presidency with Al Gore, Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman sizes it up this way: "It was a great run." Well, he adds, that is if you forget the last few years, when Washington became gridlocked over partisanship and his chamber couldn't even pass a federal budget due to ideological differences. "It pains me," he concedes.
With a year left before officially retiring, Lieberman sounds more and more like a man on a mission to try to loosen the logjam on Capitol Hill, or at least draw attention to it so lawmakers become so embarrassed that they return to their compromising ways. "I don't think Congress ever has been as bad as it is today," Lieberman says. "I bet if you ask any one of my colleagues, they'd say this: What's the Number One thought, attitude, opinion we get from our constituents? Why don't you people just get together and get something done?"
Elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1988 and turning independent in 2006 after losing in a primary, Lieberman says members used to be open to compromise in non-election years. Now, he says, the campaigns never end. Plus, there are outside factors spurring partisanship. "Some of it has to do with the influence of money in our politics that is particularly funding ideological interest groups or special interest groups. Some of it has to do with the partisan nature of the media today, particularly cable news."
It's affected him personally. When he shops for groceries, people express anger about Washington. Others worry "about their future and country's future." For inspiration, he's moved a picture in his office that represents compromise to where he can see it during meetings. It depicts the two state patriots responsible for the "Connecticut Compromise" at the 1787 Constitutional Convention that led to the creation of the House and Senate. "I mean, Congress itself is a product of compromise," he says.
Lieberman warns that it might take a "catastrophe" to change Washington. And in the meantime, it might be appropriate to consider a third-party alternative, he says, reasoning that voters might just give up on the Democrats and Republicans if the gridlock continues. "If Walmart spent its entire advertising budget attacking Target, and Target spent its entire budget attacking Walmart," Lieberman argues, "the net effect would be that a lot of people who are shopping at both stores now would shop somewhere else."
Illustration by Ed Wexler