Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman made history in 2000 when, as Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore's running mate, he became the first person of the Jewish faith on a national ticket. Four years later, Lieberman's own run for the White House ended quickly. And by 2006, rejected by home state Democrats angered by his support for the Iraq war, Lieberman ran as an Independent—or an "Independent Democrat," as he says—and won his fourth term in the Senate.
Today, Lieberman, who continues to caucus with Senate Democrats, is still making news and riling his former party. In December, he endorsed Republican John McCain for president. Lieberman has been a frequent campaigning partner with a man whom he calls a dear friend and who shares his deep commitment to the war in Iraq and a hard-line foreign policy. During an interview Thursday in his Senate office, Lieberman told U.S. News that he has no regrets about breaking from the Democrats and said he never contemplated endorsing any of the Dems who joined the race for president this year.
Lieberman also staunchly defended as "legitimate" McCain's efforts to make a campaign issue out of a Hamas spokesman's statement that a Barack Obama presidency would be welcomed. And he characterized as "apt" President Bush's assertion yesterday in Israel, during a speech marking that country's 60th anniversary, that holding discussions with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be tantamount to appeasing a leader like Hitler. The analogy was widely interpreted as a swipe at Democratic front-runner Obama, who has said only that he would be willing to talk with the nation's enemies.
Lieberman appeared energized, though he dismissed any talk about his future if McCain wins the White House (there have been whispers of a cabinet position). He says he won't change his independent status and plans to run again for Senate "unless you hear me say I'm not."
Your endorsement of Sen. McCain is viewed, obviously, as a big break from the Democratic Party. Why Sen. McCain?
It is a break. What I did I understand is unusual—not unusual for regular people—it's unusual for elected officials. There's no question that I felt the liberation to do this post-2006 because I got elected as an independent and I feel very fortunate to be back as a senator. I love this work. This is an important election, tremendous challenges from the world, big problems here at home. So who do I think is the best to do this job? My original answer to the question who was I going to support is I'd wait and see who the two parties nominated, then support who I thought was the best regardless of party. John called me right after Thanksgiving and in classic McCain style, said, "Joe, buddy, it's not that I want to get you in any more trouble than you're already in, but I think you'd really help me if you endorse me." I know him very well, we're very close friends, we've worked on a lot of things together—national security, climate change, ethics reform. I have great trust in him, and I'm very moved particularly by his constant willingness to do two things: Take on the status quo andwork across party lines. I called him back, and I said I decided if I wait until there's two nominees, I may not have the choice of supporting the person who I really think is best.
Do you find the two Democratic candidates deficient in some way?
I don't know if I'd put it that way. Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have taken positions, particularly on foreign policy and on international economic policy—they've become very anti-trade, that I think they're just not right or good for our country. They're kind of competing with each other to see who can get us to retreat from Iraq the fastest.
You're not convinced by Sen. Obama's promises to work across the aisle?
I like both of them. I have great admiration for Sen. Clinton and Obama. But Sen. Obama talks about change, but honestly, at least in his 3½ years here since I've known him, he hasn't really brought about much change to speak of. He hasn't really worked across party lines. So he could say it, but John has brought about change.
In West Virginia in particular, the issue of race was exploited in the Democratic primary, as it had been at times earlier in the primary season. As the first person of Jewish faith to run on a national ticket and with the associated worries about discrimination, how do you feel about the race card being played?
McCain will never tilt toward racial feelings. One of the things I admire about John, [is that], in my opinion, he's totally unbiased. I certainly didn't want anybody to vote against me because of my religion, and I didn't want anybody to vote for me because of my religion either. I feel that will be the case here. Sen. Obama's a very smart person and very able, and this should be a contest of ideas, records, visions for the future.
Last week you were standing next to Sen. McCain when he was asked about making a campaign issue out of the Hamas adviser saying "we like Obama and hope that he will win the election." Sen. McCain called it a "legitimate" issue and has gone so far as to call the comment an "endorsement" of Obama. Many others have called it a smear of Obama. What do you believe?
It's a legitimate issue, and I know John agrees with this, but you've got to be careful with how you talk about it. He's not saying, and I would never say, that Sen. Obama shared anything with Hamas—their goals, their values. But it is worth noting that a spokesperson for Hamas essentially said that they would look forward to having Sen. Obama as the president. Sen. Obama obviously didn't seek that. But it raises a question that leads to the larger points of direct conflict, a difference in policy. Sen. Obama said he'd sit down with the leader of Iran, said he might consider sitting down with Kim Jong Il, with [Hugo] Chavez. If you sit down with our enemies without precondition, without any sense that they and we both had something to gain from it, we're going to end up with fewer allies in the world. And can begin to seem to curry some kind of favor with Ahmadinejad. You would have a drastic, terrible effect on our Arab allies, not to mention Israel.
Do you think that's actually what he was suggesting, or is it his attempt to not to rule out conversations with our enemies as an antidote to the Bush foreign policy?
In my opinion, you're not going to have productive discussions with the current fanatical leadership of Iran unless they have something to fear. The Europeans have negotiated with the Iranians for more than two years over nuclear weapons and produced absolutely nothing. We're squeezing them somewhat economically with sanctions, and that's very important. The premise of going to sit down with somebody is that they are subject to sweet rationality and that once they're confronted with that they'll change. There are some people in the world who are just plain evil or are just plain our enemies. Ahmadinejad constantly shouts, "Death to America." And unless there's some reason to believe that there's something constructive that would come out of the discussion, the end point of it would be that it would raise his stature.
This week House GOP leader John Boehner mischaracterized Sen. Obama's comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama called the conflict a "constant sore." Boehner put out a release saying Obama characterized Israel as a "constant sore." What are your thoughts on this?
I thought that [Boehner's comments were] without foundation. It seems to me [Obama] was talking about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I mean, he's had a pro-Israel voting record, and he's made statements, including particularly in the last month when people have been raising questions that are certainly pro-Israel. I don't mean to suggest that [Obama's] in any way anti-Israel. I mean to suggest that he's said some things in this campaign about dealing with Iran and even about retreating from Iraq that would have the effect of destabilizing the Middle East, which would be bad for all of our allies in the Middle East, both Arab and Israeli.
As a person of influence in the Jewish community, do you and would you repudiate this type of campaigning?
Yes, for sure.
In President Bush's speech in Israel, he spoke about Iran, what he characterized as the dangers of appeasement, and then took it a step further to the Hitler analogy. Was that appropriate?
I thought it was a very strong speech, and I thought that part in particular was moving. I was not thinking that it was an attack on Sen. Obama. I thought the president was speaking in the context of the 60th anniversary of modern Israel, which, after all, grew up after the Holocaust. I thought his main audience was Israel, which is living in fear that Iran is controlled by a regime that is building nuclear weapons and is committed to not just fighting Israel but extinguishing Israel. I thought he was also speaking to Iran, quite consistent to a ratcheting up of the statements about Iran from the administration, including the military, over the last month or so. History teaches us that there are just certain people that you cannot negotiate into reasonable, lawful behavior. We operate sometimes on the assumption, and I think some of this is involved in the statement Sen. Obama made, that our powers of rationality and persuasion can change the mind of anyone. But history tells us there are people who are not subject to forces of reason and to decency. I would never say that we should never talk to Iran. I hope and pray for the day when there's some leadership there we feel we can talk to.
You know as well as anyone how painful it can be to launch a failed presidential bid. How does Sen. Clinton exit gracefully from this great disappointment, and what will life be like for her after this?
A person comes to this with their own experience. And she comes to this with extraordinary, unique personal experiences, having been the deeply involved spouse of a president for eight years. Of course this will be a disappointment, and I hope she's comforted by two things. The first is that it's clear to me that Sen. Clinton would have defeated any of what I would call the more traditional candidates—senators [John] Edwards, [Joseph] Biden, [Christopher]Dodd, Gov. [Bill] Richardson. But she faced an unprecedented political phenomenon in Sen. Obama. She can feel some considerable pride about the campaign she waged. She really fought the good fight, and she refused to give up, and I admire that greatly. I had a high regard personally for Sen. Clinton, and I have higher regard after this campaign. From my own experience, it was very important to me when I lost the '04 campaign, that I was a senator, which is a pretty great thing to be able to be. Her life and the opportunities to serve the public go on if you're fortunate enough as she is to be a United States senator. I hope that she will, after taking a well-deserved rest, plunge back into the Senate with characteristic energy and purpose.
In 2006, you felt betrayed by many, including fellow Connecticut Sen. Dodd, who endorsed your opponent, Ned Lamont, after he won the party's primary. Have you and Sen. Dodd made peace? How do your former party members treat you here and in Connecticut?
Obviously, my colleagues here in the Senate Democratic caucus, a lot of them just don't agree with me on Iraq and foreign policy and, of course, with my support of Sen. McCain. I'm not kidding myself about how they feel about those other questions, but we work together quite well. And as to Sen. Dodd, look, we've been through some tough stuff, tough moments in our relationship over the last couple years, especially for me in '06. But life goes on, and we're both grownups. We've reached a point where we can sort of share good stories and laugh together. Maybe in some ways our relationship has changed, but we have a very good relationship still. Back home in Connecticut as senator, I meet a lot of Democrats and they're quite friendly, and I have a lot of friends in the party. But I'm more separated from the Democratic Party activists in Connecticut than I am with my fellow Democratic senators here in part because I understand they're upset about my McCain endorsement. And some just oppose me on policy grounds. So when I see people in the party, it's not uncordial. It's a mixed picture.
If Sen. McCain wins the White House, what will you do? What happens to your party affiliation under a new president, and when the Senate makeup changes, potentially making you not so invaluable to a Democratic voting majority?
I'm not thinking too much about the future. Right now I'm just focused on doing everything I can in the campaign for Sen. McCain, and obviously, doing everything I can to be a good senator. I really do consider myself an independent Democrat. I have no plans to change parties. I subscribe to the policies of the Democratic Party that I found when I joined the party in the early 1960s under President Kennedy. But on foreign and defense policy, unfortunately, I feel that I hold those views independently of the current Democratic Party. My view for now is to stay and hold that banner as high as I can, hoping that the party comes back to it. In 2000, when I ran, Gore was the internationalist, the strong military policy guy, and Bush was on the opposite side. It's quite remarkable how the parties have switched positions over the past eight years. I want to stay and fight. I think it's really important to the country to have the two major parties have strong foreign policy and national security wings.