When independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut announced Wednesday that he wouldn’t seek a fifth term, there was hardly a wet eye in the house. It’s hard to find anybody, conservative or liberal, who has nice things to say about Lieberman, who is so disliked in his home state that the threat of competition from a former pro-wrestling promoter was apparently enough to scare him away from the 2012 Senate race. But we suspect Lieberman’s detractors will miss him more than they realize.
Nominally independent, Lieberman votes the Democratic Party line most of the time yet displays strong neoconservative leanings and has frequent fits of non-Democratic behavior, such as his endorsement of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the 2008 presidential race. He is an abortion-rights advocate who wants to restrict “immoral” media offerings, and a backer of civil rights who worked hard to end discrimination against gays in the military yet is far less scrupulous about the rights of Muslims, assailing the so-called Ground Zero mosque and proposing a bill to strip U.S. citizenship from those who are merely suspected of belonging to a foreign terrorist organization.
There was a time when such an odd breed was more common, when such senators as Wendell Wilkie, Jacob Javits, Lowell Weicker Jr., John Chafee, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Arlen Specter espoused views that frequently crossed party lines. Like them, Lieberman has often served as the Senate’s go-to guy on centrist initiatives, helping to break partisan logjams.
He led an admirable, years-long struggle with McCain to work out a deal on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, for example, and when Republicans threatened to use the “nuclear option” to limit Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees in 2005, Lieberman was a key member of the “Gang of 14” centrist senators that headed off a crisis. Yet Lieberman has not always used his power as a swing voter for good. His efforts to stall the Democratic health-care reform bill nearly killed it, and he helped put a patina of bipartisanship on President Bush’s disastrous Iraq war decisions.
There are still a handful of bridge builders left. California’s own Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein or Maine’s Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe may step up to play that important role when Lieberman is gone. But we can’t help but suspect that as the number of iconoclasts, aisle crossers and centrists diminishes in the Senate, less and less will get done.
(Los Angeles Times, Jan. 20)