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In Defense of Joe Lieberman

Why I'll miss the Connecticut senator.

I have often found Senator Joe Lieberman’s positions infuriating. I didn’t agree certainly with his unstinting support for the invasion of Iraq, or his support for Israel’s Likud governments, or his sanctimonious denunciation of Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliances, or his endorsement of John McCain in 2008. Still, I rue Lieberman’s departure from the Senate—along with that of Kent Conrad, and the recent departures of Russ Feingold, Byron Dorgan, and Robert Bennett. Some of it has to do with sheer predictability and individuality. These senators interested me—made me at least think one and a half times—in contrast, say, to the Barbara Mikulskis and Jon Kyls or Tom Harkins. But it was more than that.

The Senate was designed constitutionally to be a quasi-independent patrician body with six year terms. Senators were to be elected for their character and intelligence as much as for their precise views at the moment they stood for office. And the Senate, during its first half century (think of Calhoun, Webster, Sumner), was a place of great individuality. It retained some of that during the last century, but it’s less so now—not because of direct election of senators, but because of the requirements of constant fundraising and, most recently, because of the emphasis on partisanship, especially from the Republicans.  Many of the more interesting individuals in the Senate (like, say, Richard Lugar, Orrin Hatch, Dianne Feinstein) are products of an earlier political generation.

But what about Lieberman, you ask? Many people, including myself, were surprised last month when he took leadership in the fight to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” requirement for gays in the military. But Lieberman’s position was entirely consistent with stands that he had always taken. If there was a political evolution in Lieberman, it was from a fairly conventional liberal, with a dose of law and order thrown in, to a mix of domestic liberal and neoconservative foreign policy hawk. He was the 1990s equivalent of the old cold war liberal. And it was on these positions that he took his stand and broke with many in his own party, and eventually found himself ostracized. I didn’t agree with his positions, but they weren’t venal or small-minded.

Lieberman did take positions that I would suspect reflected his fundraising priorities—like his conversion last year to undying opponent of the public option in health care reform, a conversion that might have reflected the demands of insurance companies in his state. But on many standard-issue liberal concerns—including the environment, workers’ health and safety, labor, civil rights, women’s rights, the minimum wage, and social welfare—Lieberman didn’t waver. And he was one of the few in the Senate to push consistently for some kind of climate change legislation.

In noting these liberal stands, I am not suggesting that Lieberman was really a good liberal underneath his ornery, neoconservative, pro-McCain veneer, but rather that, unlike many senators, he was able to combine different political convictions into a fairly unique mixture. Perhaps the new era of Citizens United and Mitch McConnell makes the Liebermans and Conrads of the Senate a luxury we can ill afford. But I’ll still miss them.

John B. Judis is a senior editor for The New Republic.

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