What Future For Lieberman?

Posted: Aug 15, 2006 12:01 AM
What Future For Lieberman?

So much has been said about the defeat of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) that I am not sure I can add to the discussion. Lieberman, having lost the Democratic Primary, filed the necessary papers to run as an independent, which in most any other state would be considered a suicide mission. Not in the Nutmeg State. For example, in 1988, with the backing of many conservatives, Joe Lieberman was elected to the Senate, defeating three-term liberal Republican Senator Lowell P. Weicker (R-CT). Well and good. A few years later, Weicker ran and won the Governorship of Connecticut as an independent. In 1970 Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D-CT) had run for re-election as an independent and lost. Dodd had been censured by the United States Senate for allegedly misusing campaign funds. Most Democrats voted to censure Dodd, so he quit the Democratic Party. Unlike his son, the current Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT), the elder Dodd was a staunch anti-Communist. Senator Russell B. Long (D-LA) led the opposition to the censure of Dodd. He hinted that Dodd was being punished for his views. Moreover, Long said, if every Senator were to confess to misusing campaign funds the Senate Chamber would be empty. But I digress.

There have been a few Independents through the years but each chose to caucus with one party or the other. Senator Wayne L. Morse (R-OR) was elected from Oregon as a Republican. In the middle of the Eisenhower first term, Morse declared he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. But, he said, since he had been elected as a Republican he would continue to caucus with the Republicans. In 1956, when Morse ran for re-election, he went the distance and became a Democrat. In 1968, Morse was defeated by Senator Robert W. Packwood (R-OR).

In 1970, not one but two independents were elected to the United States Senate. In Virginia, liberal Democrats ousted Senator Harry F. Bird, Jr. Bird turned around and won re-election as an independent. Oddly enough, although the Republicans made it clear that Byrd would be welcome in the Republican Caucus, Byrd chose to caucus with the Democrats. Byrd was more conservative than almost all Republicans. Just why he would want to caucus with the liberal party isn't clear, but both he and his father before him were long-serving Democrats.

That same year in New York a three-way race developed for the Senate. The appointed incumbent, Senator Charles E. Goodell, had been a moderate Republican in the House. But as soon as he was appointed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (R-NY) to the Senate he wasted no time in becoming a clone of ultra-liberal Republican Senator Jacob A. (Jack) Javits (R-NY). So Conservative Party nominee James L. Buckley, the brother of William F. Buckley of NATIONAL REVIEW and various television adventures, ran not only against the Democratic liberal but also against the Republican liberal. Then Vice President Spiro T. Agnew delivered a famous speech in New York in which he attacked Goodell and all but endorsed Buckley. Buckley won in a three-way contest. Conservatives argued strongly that since he was elected on the Conservative line, and since there was no other elected Conservative, he should form a caucus by himself. Buckley thought otherwise and caucused with the Republicans. That was the case for six years. Then Buckley ran for re-election as a Republican. He was soundly defeated by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY). Buckley tried once more to be elected Senator, this time from Connecticut. Running as a Republican, Buckley was trounced in that election bid.

More recently, of course, there was one celebrated independent who, by leaving the Republican Caucus and joining the Democratic Caucus, caused control of the Senate to switch from Republican to Democrat. James P. Jeffords had his 15 minutes of fame by causing the Democrats to control the Senate. He became a committee chairman for about 18 months. Then Republicans won back control of the Senate. When Jeffords switched he had just been re-elected in the 2000 election as a Republican. Now, six years later, Jeffords is retiring. The Republicans were gunning for him and the Democrats were not all that enthusiastic about him either.

Had Buckley followed the advice of those who helped elect him on the Conservative line (New York has multiple parties and a candidate may choose to run on one of several different lines) he might have survived the 1976 election. There was a real feeling of a pox on both of your houses in New York. Even though Buckley would caucus by himself, he could have carved out a place for himself as a true independent. By becoming Richard M. Nixon's favorite Republican, as one magazine article put it, Buckley seemed to fade in significance as the term wore on.

Back to Senator Lieberman, who has a decent chance of being elected as an independent in a three-way race. Republicans are running a weak candidate who was thought to be a sacrificial lamb against Lieberman. Now that Ned Lamont is the Democratic nominee there is a whole different picture. Some Republicans are pushing to get a stronger candidate on the ballot. Unless that happens, and it doesn't appear that it will, Senator Lieberman will likely get the support of many Republicans inasmuch as the issue in his primary campaign was that he was too close to President George W. Bush. Lamont even ran a TV ad showing President Bush planting a kiss on Senator Lieberman's cheek on his way down the House of Representatives main aisle to deliver the State of the Union message.

Lieberman already has announced that if re-elected he will continue to caucus with the Democrats. That cannot be a comfortable decision. Most in the Democratic Caucus will have supported Lamont. Even several Senators who endorsed Lieberman in his re-election bid have withdrawn their endorsement now that Lamont is the Democrat nominee. But what are the alternatives? He could elect to caucus with the Republicans but that would be equally uncomfortable. Except for his support of the war on terrorism Lieberman is a garden-variety liberal Democrat. True, he has flirted with school choice and he has given lip service some of the morality questions, but on abortion, for example, he votes with the liberals all the way-this despite the fact that Lieberman calls himself an Orthodox Jew. Orthodox Jews are prolife. Some have denounced him for that and other reasons. He could caucus by himself. That may be very lonely since the Senate is really an exclusive club.

On the other hand, he may be able to carve out a unique place in Senate history. If he were elected as an independent and remained as an independent he well could become a third force in American politics. That is unlikely to happen just because Lieberman has so many friends in the Democratic Caucus. He can forgive them if they have supported Lamont. And let us not assume that Lieberman is going to win. Lamont is a good campaigner and Connecticut is a very liberal state. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if good old Joe can win a fourth term by playing between both major parties.