Joe Lieberman may have finally found a home. A former Democratic senator from Connecticut, Lieberman was chosen as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. Following the failure of his own hawkish bid for the Democratic nomination four years later, he became increasingly estranged from the left and even lost a Senate primary, forcing him to run for his seat as an independent. Once he retired from the Senate in 2013, Lieberman became the co-chairman of No Labels, a nonpartisan movement pushing for a technocratic, “national strategic agenda” that aims to “put the country first” and rise above partisanship.
The question is whether such a group—which tends to blame both sides evenly for dysfunction in Washington—is really the solution to what ails the nation. The potential shortcomings of such an approach were highlighted when Donald Trump spoke before No Labels in October, eventually agreed to the group’s “four goals“ (for example: create 25 million jobs over the next 10 years), and was labeled a “problem solver.”
To discuss the election, I spoke by phone with former Sen. Lieberman. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talked about why No Labels has not made an issue of gun control, whether Trump is really a deal-maker, and the value (or cost) of staying neutral when a demagogue is running for president.
Isaac Chotiner: In the age of Trump, how do you view the role of No Labels?
Joe Lieberman: I have been supportive of No Labels from the beginning, but I really got active in it, really active, in 2014 when they asked me to become essentially the Democratic co-chair, or one of the co-chairs, with Jon Huntsman. I think that some of the same reactions and emotions that have given strength to Trump’s campaign and to Bernie Sanders’s campaign were felt by those who founded No Labels.
You’re not counting racism, I guess.
No. Not at all. Give me a moment. I’m going to come to that. Maybe I should close that quickly. The common denominator between No Labels and Trump and Sanders is discontent with the political status quo, which is that it’s not doing anything. The people in Washington are not doing anything. We’ve tried in a very different way than Trump, obviously, or Bernie Sanders, to disrupt the current system. In our case it’s by creating incentives for people in both parties to work together.
As you know probably, we held a convention in Manchester, New Hampshire. We asked all the candidates to come and speak to us. Eight of them did. A broadly different group. Then we asked them to make a pledge that if they were elected, in the first 30 days they’d call in the bipartisan leadership of Congress.
Did Trump make that pledge?
Trump did, interestingly. Clinton, I would put it this way, has not yet, but I’m hopeful that she will.
If Trump is willing to make the pledge, is that maybe a hint that the pledge doesn’t have any meaning?
Well, look, Trump, to put it mildly, like most political candidates but even more so, is a complicated candidate. It may mean on one side, and he stresses this some of the time, but it doesn’t get as much attention: He knows how to make a deal. He’s going to negotiate. He’s going to spend time at it. This, if it ever happened, is all good. Obviously, on the other side …
Right, the other side.
And now I’m trying to keep my No Labels hat on, Isaac, without getting personally into it. He’s obviously done other things in the campaign that have been extremely divisive and would make it hard for him. With which I disagree personally and publicly and substantively.
Didn’t Huntsman endorse him though?
But you don’t feel like you can endorse someone?
I might. We’re each free within the No Labels movement and spirit to do it. Although I was elected, as you know, re-elected for my last term as an independent, I remain a Democrat. It’s who I am. While the party has changed, that’s who I am. I have two choices personally in this election. One is to simply focus on my work for No Labels and not get involved. The other, I would say, is to support Clinton who will obviously be the Democratic candidate. I’m not rushing for that. In other words, I’m not rushing to make a decision. I’ve got time.
You just said that you thought Trump could be a deal-maker. You said you want to keep your No Label hat on. Doesn’t it just seem like we’re at a moment where a bigoted and demagogic figure has emerged on the American political scene and that perhaps this is the time for No Labels to unite around the fact that this guy is a scary figure?
I got you. Here’s what I meant by keeping my No Label hat on. I’m being interviewed by you as the co-chair of No Labels. No Labels is a movement that has a purpose, which is to try to incentivize the two parties to begin to work together, compromise, and finally get something done and deal with the country’s problems before they become crises or catastrophes. There’s a separate question, and this is what I meant, about Joe Lieberman, Democrat, former senator, about what I’m going to do now. If you ask me personally, do I agree with the positions that Donald Trump has taken on a number of really important issues such as immigration, such as his comments on the judge …
Allowing Muslims in the country.
Yeah. I’d like to actually disagree with that. I like the articulation that Paul Ryan gave that there should be a security test, not a religious test. It should apply to everybody of any religion coming in. Right? But that’s me. That’s not No Labels. No Labels is …
Huntsman endorsed though, that’s why I asked.
I don’t feel under any time pressure. We’ve got five months until the election.
Endorsements aside, I think a lot of people right now are freaked out about Trump. I’m just wondering whether you feel like a group like No Labels at this time loses some of its force because Trump himself is such a sui generis figure.
Yeah. Yeah, I hear you. He’s a very different case. It has sort of affected the No Labels purpose, but the No Labels purpose is unique and has value on its own. This is why we’re all focused on this 1787 conference we’re going to do in December, which we’re billing really as how do we begin to make peace now that the war is over.
You don’t seem terrified by the prospect that this guy could be president.
Well, I mean [laughs]. Here’s what I’m going to say today. I’m again trying to … I understand the difficulty not only for me but for you in separating between Joe Lieberman individual and Lieberman co-chair of No Labels. I think the purpose of No Labels is so important that I am focused on it now.
Have you gotten any indication from Trump or his people that he is more rational than he comes across?
That’s true of probably every candidate, but it seems to be, in a sense, more the norm with him. You’ve seen him in some one-on-one interviews where he seems quite different from the political rally setting. I’ve met him probably two or three times in my life. I, along with Huntsman, spoke to him on the phone to invite him to come to the convention in Manchester. He asked us about the organization. They were thoughtful questions. “OK, I got it. That sounds important, and I’d like to come.” Then he came.
He spent what seemed to me to be a very long time describing the role he played in the building of a skating rink in Central Park in New York. Now why did he do that? Because he said Ed Koch called him and said that. He said, “Donald, for five years I’ve been trying to get this damn skating rink built and nothing is happening. Would you get in there and make it happen?” It was all intended to show that he knows how to make things work. What can I tell you? I would say that was a thoughtful, interesting story. Perhaps boring to some frankly.
We’ll just edit it out.
Hillary seems like the sort of Democrat that you would be sympathetic to. She’s got a fairly hawkish record, more hawkish than the president. What’s your relationship like with her?
I have known President Clinton and Secretary Clinton for a long time. I met them when they were at Yale Law School in the early ’70s. I was already out a couple of years, but I was in New Haven. I really got to know him better. I was an early Bill Clinton supporter in ’91 and ’92. I’m proud of his presidency. Hillary, I served with, of course, for eight years in the Senate. She was a very good colleague. I thought she was a very good senator. I thought that she showed, as a senator, her ability to work across party lines. My impression was that she really reached out a lot to co-sponsor legislation with Republicans. When she was the secretary of state, even though I had some differences on foreign policy with the Obama administration, she regularly kept in touch with people like me and even people like [John] McCain and [Lindsey] Graham. I say even because they’re Republicans. I think she’s quite capable. I don’t agree with every position she’s taken in this campaign. I believe in free trade, fair trade. There are other things that we probably have disagreed on, but I respect her a lot. There you go.
You talked about issues in Washington that they can’t find solutions to. It seems like Connecticut, your state, has taken the lead in the push for gun control. Does No Labels take a position on gun control issues?
Right. No Labels has not taken a position on gun control. Consistently what we’ve been trying to do is we have this national strategic agenda, the four goals that you’re probably familiar with. All these things have polled very well across the political spectrum. I frankly don’t know whether we ever polled on gun control.
If people dealt with the economy or securing Social Security and Medicare, et cetera, then you could get people into issues like gun control or immigration reform, which are more inherently controversial, politically controversial, but really, for the good of the country, need to be solved.
Gun control …
Personally, I’ve always been for gun control. I supported the ban on semi-automatics that ran out. Obviously, the latest discussion of whether you ought to put somebody on a no-buy list if they’re on a no-travel list because they’re on a terrorism watch list, of course, I support that. No Labels hasn’t gotten into every issue so that’s different.
Right, it just seems like this issue has majority support and common sense behind it. Also, if some issue were the perfect example of coming together to prevent partisanship and special interests …
You mean gun control?
I agree with your analysis. I think the consensus within the No Labels movement was, let’s pick some big ones that are hard enough and see. Actually to resolve them, challenge the special interests in Washington.
Have you talked to your old friend, Sen. McCain, about Trump?
Yeah, but you know, those are all wonderfully private conversations.
Thank you so much for talking.
No Labels will continue to be ready to help make peace after the war is over.
Good luck negotiating with the Trump administration.
Thank you, Isaac [laughs]. We’ll have another conversation if that comes to pass.