• U.S.

Whatever Joe Lieberman Wants

4 minute read
Massimo Calabresi

In his 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Joe Lieberman has cultivated an image of himself as a lonely prude among the morally corrupt, that rare Washington official who places principle above politics. But with the Democrats’ hold on power dependent on just one vote–in effect, his–and with Republicans courting him to tilt the balance in their favor, Lieberman has been indulging in some fairly immodest political footsie. Early this year he terrified fellow Democrats by skipping several of the weekly caucus lunches that cement party fidelity in the Senate. Recently he was spotted in the Republican cloakroom talking with South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham about reforming Social Security. He even says he might vote Republican for President in 2008, a not-so-veiled hint that he would prefer John McCain, his fellow true believer in the Iraq war, to most, perhaps all, Democratic alternatives.

The Democrats’ 2000 candidate for Vice President is the only party member in the Senate supporting President Bush’s Iraq policy and says he is “very troubled about the direction the party is heading on foreign policy generally.” With his re-election in November, many old allies now rue abandoning him after he lost the Connecticut Democratic primary to Ned Lamont last August. Both sides concede that bitterness remains. “It’s still a little painful and awkward,” says the majority whip, Dick Durbin, “but I think the caucus counts him as a friend.”

Lieberman says leaving the Democratic Party is a “very remote possibility.” But even that slight ambiguity–and all his cross-aisle flirtation–has proved more than enough to position Lieberman as the Senate’s one-man tipping point. If he were to jump ship, the ensuing shift of power to Republicans would scramble the politics of the war in Iraq, undercut the Democrats’ national agenda and potentially weaken their hopes for the White House in 2008. Those stakes are high enough to give Lieberman leverage with both parties no matter how slim the chance of his crossing the aisle. Which means Senate leaders aren’t worrying only about whether Joe Lieberman will switch parties. They’re wondering what, if anything, he plans to do with the power that comes from keeping that possibility alive.

So far, Lieberman is using his clout mostly in ways that discomfit his fellow Democrats, while his relationship with Republicans has involved more collaboration than coercion. When Senate majority leader Harry Reid said Bush’s State of the Union proposal for a bipartisan terrorism panel was redundant, Lieberman, who supported the idea, privately sent Reid a letter saying he was “upset.” Within days, Reid backed down and negotiated the panel’s makeup with the White House. And last month, after Lieberman told Reid he had stopped attending the weekly Democratic lunch because he didn’t feel comfortable discussing Iraq there, Reid offered to hold those discussions at another time. Lieberman has started attending again.

It stands to reason that Lieberman, a lifelong Democrat, would be interested in extracting concessions from Republicans as well. He describes himself as a hawk abroad, and lately his rhetoric has come to resemble the G.O.P.’s, notably when he said Democratic opposition to Bush’s troop surge would “discourage our troops, hearten our enemies.” But he’s progressive at home; he has a long record of fighting for environmental concerns, prides himself on his early support for the civil rights movement and has earned strong ratings from labor. He’s even working on a military mental-health bill with California liberal Barbara Boxer. His staff claims he votes with Democrats more than 90% of the time, if Iraq is removed from the calculation.

And Lieberman is uniquely positioned to influence the Bush Administration. In December 2004 the White House “sounded him out” for the job of U.N. ambassador, says a source close to Lieberman, and although he declined the offer, he remains in regular contact with the Executive Branch. Before Bush’s State of the Union speech in January, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley brought in Lieberman for a private consultation with the President. Lieberman says he talks with or e-mails Hadley, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and White House legislative-affairs head Candida Wolff every week or two.

Lieberman’s G.O.P. flirtation has its risks–and a time limit. By this time next year, the 2008 election cycle will overshadow anything that happens in the Senate. The longer he waits to capitalize on his moment, the greater the danger that he’ll be tagged as one of those politicians for whom having power is more important than using it.

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