Joe Lieberman Being Shunned by Democrats
Joe Lieberman, the darling of his party when he was making things close in Florida in 2000, is apparently becoming a pariah now that he is supporting the war effort during a time when President Bush has low poll numbers. This is evident in two nearly-identical articles in the country’s two most influential newspapers.
Five years after running as the vice-presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket and a year after his own presidential bid, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut has become an increasingly unwelcome figure within his party, with some Democrats seeing him more as a wayward son than a favorite son. In the last few days, the senator has riled Democratic activists and politicians here and in his home state with his vigorous defense of President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war at a time some Democrats are pressuring the administration to begin a withdrawal. Mr. Lieberman particularly infuriated his colleagues when he pointed out at a conference here that President Bush would be commander in chief for three more years and said that “it’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that.”
Mr. Lieberman, who remains immensely popular in his home state, is aware of the hornet’s nest he has stirred. “Some Democrats said I was being a traitor,” he said in an interview on Friday, adding that he was not surprised by the reaction, “given the depth of feeling about the war.”
Although some Democrats are upset with Mr. Lieberman, Republicans are embracing him, with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld singling him out, and his support for the war, for praise in speeches this week. “He is entirely correct,” Mr. Cheney said on Tuesday at Fort Drum, N.Y. “On this, both Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree. The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon our mission.”
Concerns about Mr. Lieberman’s coziness with the administration grew this week when he had breakfast with Mr. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Later, rumors spread that Mr. Bush was considering asking Mr. Lieberman to join the administration to succeed Mr. Rumsfeld next year as defense secretary. “It’s a total fantasy,” Mr. Lieberman said. “There’s just no truth to it.”
Mr. Lieberman noted that his positions on Iraq had not changed over the years, dating from 1991, when he supported the first Persian Gulf war. In 1998, he and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, proposed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein official American policy. “The positive and negative reactions may have less to do with the substance of what I said than with the fact that a Democrat is saying it,” Mr. Lieberman said. “It reflects the terribly divisive state of our politics.”
Tom Matzzie, the Washington director for MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group with 10,000 members in Connecticut, said it would consider a challenge if the right candidate came along. “It’s like a betrayal,” Mr. Matzzie said of Mr. Lieberman’s stand on the war. “He is cheering the Bush Iraq policy at a time when Republicans are running away from the president.”
Five years ago, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was one of President Bush’s arch political rivals. Now many in his party complain that he sounds more like Bush’s running mate.
The Connecticut Democrat’s strong public defense of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war has provided the White House with an invaluable rejoinder to intensifying criticism from other Democrats. In public statements and a newspaper column, Lieberman has argued that Bush has a strategy for victory in Iraq, has dismissed calls for the president to set a timetable for troop withdrawal, and has warned that it would be a “colossal mistake” for the Democratic leadership to “lose its will” at this critical point in the war.
Lieberman’s contrarian behavior is not out of character — he is far more hawkish than the majority of Democrats, and he has vigorously backed invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein from the beginning. But the latest defense of Bush and his stinging salvos at some in his own party have infuriated Democrats, who say he is undercutting their effort to forge a consensus on the war and draw clear distinctions with Republicans before the 2006 elections.
Then, at a Tuesday news conference on Iraq, Lieberman gave his party a tongue-lashing for pressing Bush too forcefully. “History will judge us harshly if we do not stretch across the divide of distrust to join together to complete our mission successfully in Iraq,” Lieberman said. “It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.”
Many Democrats were appalled by Lieberman’s comments, although few were willing to reprimand him publicly. “Senator Lieberman is past the point of being taken seriously in the caucus because everything he does is seen as advancing his own self-interest, instead of the Democratic interest,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide, who described discontent in that chamber as “widespread.” The liberal antiwar group MoveOn.org is weighing whether to back a challenger to Lieberman. MoveOn Washington director Tom Matzzie called Weicker “a very attractive candidate” but added that “the easiest way to take out Joe Lieberman would be in a Democratic primary.”
Lieberman is, in many ways, the Democrats’ John McCain: a well respected Senator who agrees with the party line 90 pecent of the time but gets villified for the other 10 percent. My sense is that Lieberman enjoys tweaking his party less than McCain, but that may well be just a matter of vantagepoint.
I understand that most Democratic leaders now oppose the war and that they are hoping to turn that into victory in 2006. Many Republicans fear, even expect, that to happen. Still, the treatment of Lieberman is somewhat surprising.