Good Riddance, Joe Lieberman

Why I loathe my Connecticut senator.

Joe Lieberman

My corner of Connecticut was covered in ice today, until news broke of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s impending retirement. Magically, a warm glow spread. It was a delicious feeling: the end of the reign of the politician I despise most.

Why do I loathe, loathe, loathe my 68-year-old four-term senator? My feelings are all the stronger for being fairly irrational. Lieberman’s views are closer to mine than many politicians on whom I don’t expend one iota of emotional energy. This, of course, is his power: He never loses his power to disappoint. Then there is the spectacle of it all: After each act of grand or petty betrayal, each time he turned on his former supporters, the Democratic Party and the Obama administration came back begging for more. Throughout the last Congress, he never let anyone forget he was the 60th vote.

It wasn’t always so, at least not to me. When I first moved to Connecticut in 1989, during Lieberman’s first term, he seemed entirely unobjectionable. In 1998, after I moved to the state a second time, I went to hear him speak. In 2001, I wrote a respectful piece for the Washington Post (I can’t find it online) about how Lieberman’s observance of Jewish law, as Al Gore’s running mate, had offered a welcome means for thinking about the accommodation of religious differences. What was I thinking? How did I miss the sanctimony beneath the kippah? As my friend Caleb puts it, “Even when he was a good liberal Democrat (coming up through the state legislature and as attorney general in the ‘70s and ‘80s, for example), it was driven, I am sure, by opportunism rather than conviction.”

Another friend, Judy Chevalier, burned up her iPad tonight when I asked her to enumerate why she hates Joe Lieberman. She ticked off a half-dozen reasons and then said, “The thing is, I did not come up with most of these myself. They come from many rounds of playing the peculiar Connecticut liberal cocktail party game ‘I hated Joe Lieberman before you hated Joe Lieberman.’ ” Longtime Lieberman haters, she says, look all the way back to 1993, when Lieberman led a hedge-fund-friendly charge in the Senate against the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which at the time wanted to close the accounting loophole that let corporations duck the recording of stock options on their balance sheets.

More old-timer liberal grudges against Lieberman: He denounced Bill Clinton in 1998 over Monica Lewinsky, a gift to the president’s enemies. He selfishly held on to his Senate seat in 2000 when he ran with Gore; if they’d won, Lieberman’s replacement would have been appointed by a Republican governor. A creative grudge from Caleb: Lieberman failed to bury Dick Cheney in the vice-presidential debate in 2000 because “he clearly had no interest in showing the public what kind of leader Cheney really would be.” Judy points out that in 2006, Lieberman opposed an effort to require all hospitals, including Catholic ones, to make the morning after pill available to rape victims. He said glibly, “In Connecticut, it shouldn’t take more than a short ride to get to another hospital.”

On to the more familiar recent history: Lieberman’s unrequited, unquenchable love for the Iraq war. (All the more misguided if, as my friend David thinks, Lieberman saw his hawkishness as in the service of Israel and Jewish identity in America.) His romance with John McCain, which won him a speaking role at the 2008 Republican National Convention. His irritating, me-me-me flirtation with caucusing with the Republicans after he lost his Democratic primary to Ned Lamont and then won the 2006 general election running as an Independent.

In 2009, it was Lieberman who held the health care bill hostage so he could kill the Democrats’ proposal to let people get health insurance coverage by buying into Medicare—even though, as Ezra Klein points out, he’d endorsed the same proposal months earlier. Ezra calls Lieberman “erratic and seemingly unprincipled” during the health care debate but then gives him credit for delivering one of the handful of swing votes that allowed the bill to pass. I am not willing to be so forgiving.  Should his vote have been so hard to get? Was this all about pleasing the Connecticut insurance companies? And then there’s more: In July, Lieberman swaggered about a possible U.S. strike against Iran. In September, he was the one leading the way toward extending the Bush tax cuts for every last millionaire. This brings back the memory of the kiss George Bush gave him at the 2005 State of the Union address.

And then, most infuriating of all, Lieberman ended the last Congress by doing something good. He resurrected the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the Senate last month. Afterward he said, “America became an even greater and stronger country today.” I couldn’t agree more.  On Salon, Alex Pareene said that it was still OK to hate Joe Lieberman, but for a moment, I wobbled. Would I have to forgive Lieberman, however grudgingly?

The answer is no. Pareene stiffened my spine by bringing up one sin I’d forgotten: After the arrest of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Lieberman proposed a bill that would have automatically stripped Americans of citizenship for being charged—not convicted—with a terrorist act. Add that one to the list. And surely I’ve left out various Lieberman lows you should alert me to in the comments.

Dave Weigel says that Lieberman could not have won a fifth term in 2012 because at 31 percent last October, his approval ratings were too low. Maybe so, but now I realize I’ve missed my chance to vote against him. My friend Leslie says that her vote for him in the primaries in 2006 is the vote she regrets most; I wasn’t living in Connecticut that year. Even Lieberman’s retirement announcement is an irritant. I’ll never get to throw the bum out.

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