Joe Lieberman will not leave his fellow Democrats alone

The Washington Post

NEW YORK — There’s a political adage Joe Lieberman thought of to describe his relationship to the Democratic Party.

“It’s the old line,” said the former senator and vice-presidential candidate. “I guess it was first Ronald Reagan who said it.”

I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.

Lieberman didn’t say Reagan’s line. Instead he paused, chuckled and reconsidered.

“So maybe that’s not a good person to quote to extend a bridge to my fellow Democrats,” he said.

There’s a lot of mutual disappointment between Lieberman and his fellow Democrats. By the time he’d left office, in 2013, the gentleman from Connecticut had left Lieberman-shaped dents in the Democrats’ 21st-century ambitions. Officially he’d ended his 24 years in the Senate as an independent, but when he moved to the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale, Lieberman registered to vote with the party he’d joined amid heady idealism of the Kennedy years. He still wanted a say.

“Because I am a Democrat!” he said. “And I’m hopeful that the Democratic Party will return to what I hope it will be.”

He has a plan for how to do that, and it involves challenging President Biden. Lieberman is working with No Labels, the centrist group that is preparing to stand up a bipartisan “unity ticket” as an “insurance policy” against the possibility — likelier by the day — that the race will come down to two unpopular nominees: Biden and Donald Trump. In which case, No Labels would strongly consider fielding an alternative candidate who might appeal to disillusioned voters on both sides. “Based on the conditions as they are, we expect to be putting up a ticket early next year,” said Ryan Clancy, chief strategist for No Labels.

The backlash against the project has been moderately furious. And it has raised a question particular to this moment, when a right-wing demagogue has an iron grip on one of the country’s two major parties: For the center to hold, will the centrists have to become a skosh more comfortable with their teammate-opponents on the left? Maybe even walk a few paces in their direction, for the sake of reaching common ground?

Lieberman remains hopeful, as he has his whole career, that if he holds firm in the center, then the party will find its way back to where he’s standing.

My visit with the former senator fell on the morning after Yom Kippur, the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar devoted to introspection and atonement. I asked Lieberman whether he had used the holiday to reflect on anything that he was willing to share with the rest of us.

“No, thanks.”

It was a soggy Tuesday in late September, and we were sitting in his corner office at Kasowitz Benson Torres, a New York law firm whose profile rose in awareness (if not renown) for providing counsel to Trump. His perch, overlooking the Times Square Applebee’s, resembles his former digs inside the Hart Senate Office Building, adorned with mementos from his more than 40 years in government. Lieberman spends many days in his den turned makeshift office in Riverdale, Zooming into meetings of the sundry corporate and nonprofit boards on which he serves and writing the occasional Wall Street Journal op-ed, which tend to be about as well-received among his fellow Democrats as a stink bomb. He ventures out every now and then for the occasional paid speech — or, as Lieberman calls it, “the wonderful bonus for public service.”

He’s aged into his 80s much as Biden himself has, appearing as a slightly more delicate version of his past self — his cheeks a bit more papery, his unhurried baritone a bit shaky. But he still looks as senatorial as ever in a gray suit and a buttoned shirt checkered with lavender — a subtle (if unintentional) allusion to his purplish politics, which liberals might also describe as checkered.

As Al Gore’s running mate, in 2000, he was put in charge of delivering Florida, where his moderate politics and Jewish faith seemed like keys to a victory for the Democratic ticket. Gore-Lieberman ended up losing there by 537 votes. It was a complicated failure with a simple upshot: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took the White House and everything that came with it. Back in the Senate, Lieberman backed Bush’s foreign policy long after post-9/11 hawkishness had fallen out of fashion among Democrats. Not long after Bush kissed him on the cheek after the 2006 State of the Union address, Lieberman had a primary opponent. Connecticut Democrats voted for the other guy, forcing Lieberman to run an independent campaign for reelection — which he won with the help of Karl Rove, Bush’s political mastermind, who couldn’t bear to lose such a solid ally on the other side of the aisle. When Lieberman endorsed Republican John McCain in 2008, Connecticut Democrats had stuffed his portrait into a closet at party headquarters. For his final act, he helped kill the public option in President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, closing the door on government-provided insurance.

I asked Lieberman how it feels to be a bogeyman to his party. “Well, I mean, obviously, I’m not going to enjoy it,” he said. “At every point, I feel like I’ve done what I thought was right, and, frankly, consistent with the politics that I’ve followed my entire career.”

In light of his entire career, the decision to work with No Labels seems inevitable. Lieberman has been with the group since its founding when Nancy Jacobson, a Democratic fundraiser and eventual No Labels CEO, approached him with the idea for a group to combat partisanship in Congress. His title within the organization is “founding chairman,” an honorific that carries real weight, even if it comes with little day-to-day responsibility. Lieberman is called upon to weigh in on key internal decisions, according to Clancy. He also serves as one of the group’s primary spokespeople.

No Labels, whose chairs also include former Republican Maryland governor Larry Hogan and former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis Jr., was founded in 2010 as a centrist bulwark against the energy massing on the fringes, with Occupy Wall Street on the left and the tea party movement on the right. Mostly that meant hosting meals for lawmakers of both parties to mingle and defending moderate candidates against more partisan primary opponents. No Labels began scaring the bejesus out of Democrats only recently, with its 2024 “unity ticket” gambit.

“We’re not going to really fix the system and make it work again unless we have a president who is totally committed to bipartisan government and not affected by either party,” Lieberman told me. “And we realized there was a certain boldness, maybe impracticality, to this, but the way to do it would be to run a bipartisan unity ticket.”

With Cornel West planning to challenge Biden from the left and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. competing with him from — well, it’s honestly hard to tell, at this point — the No Labels ticket would be part of an unusually crowded field of third-party candidates who may complicate the race. The group has already reserved space for its eventual ticket on the 2024 ballot in 12 states, and it wants to be on the menu in all 50. Its ideal nominee, which it may select at a nominating convention in April, would make a commitment to at least some of the nebulous policies prescribed in the group’s “Common Sense” agenda: Support an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy production, “strike a balance” on abortion access, and commit to a “reasonable and responsible” federal budget that pays off the national debt.

How real is No Labels 2024? So far, it’s as real as the Liebermans (Lieb-erals?) of the world need it to be. They don’t want to help Trump. But they do want a say.

“We hoped, maybe — because this is the way our politics often works — that if we showed some strength, one or both of the major political parties would move more toward the center.”

“Yeah, like a threat,” Lieberman said. One that “had to be real” to make the party pay attention.

Has it ever. Critics of the group have argued that a candidate appealing to the reasonable middle would obviously siphon more support from Biden than Trump, making Lieberman and his band of Very Sensible Centrists potentially responsible for indirectly returning a norms-destroying, insurrection-inspiring Republican strongman to power. The group has promised, repeatedly, that it will not be a spoiler that tips the election to Trump. (“We don’t think Trump should ever again be president,” Clancy told me.) If the group sits out 2024, Lieberman vows to “enthusiastically support” Biden, because “he believes in the rule of law, so that’s an important standard,” Lieberman said.

But what will it take to get No Labels to back off its threat?

“If one or both parties manage to change their posture,” Clancy says, meaning if Democrats and/or Republicans choose a unity-inclined nominee who is not named Joe Biden and/or Donald Trump. It’s also using its own set of metrics to measure the field, vowing to ax the plan if the group thinks its ticket would lead to a Trump victory. “All we can do is take them at their word,” said former House minority leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), a longtime Lieberman ally who now runs a super PAC tasked with thwarting the presidential plans of No Labels. “… But it’s a sketchy way to make a decision like this, I can tell ya that!”

Anti-No Labels organizers don’t trust that there’s any real mechanism for stopping a rolling boulder and have been reaching out to would-be candidates such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to persuade them to reject the project. “You’ll be Jill Stein 2.0,” said Matt Bennett, an executive vice president of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. “You aren’t going to be president, and Trump will be.”

Indeed, even ostensible allies find what No Labels is doing to be unconscionably dangerous, given the stakes.

“That’s perfectly sensible in normal times,” said Bill Galston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “My argument always was that, with Trump on the ballot, the risk was too great.”

Galston was a co-founder of No Labels, but he quit the group earlier this year over its presidential aspirations. He saw what happened in 2016, when some voters decided they couldn’t live with Hillary Clinton. “I couldn’t be a party to something that would divide the anti-Trump coalition,” Galston said.

After 2000, Lieberman is hardly naive about what can happen if an electoral game of chicken between a major party and its discontents continues all the way until Election Day. “He is aware of what a spoiler can do,” Bennett said. “To me, that is the essence of the lunacy of his involvement with No Labels.”

It was disappointing to think, said Bill Curry, a Lieberman friend turned foe from the Connecticut Democratic scene, “that Joe Lieberman would get another chance to screw up everything.”

For better or worse, bipartisanship has long been the magnetic pin in Lieberman’s compass. “Early on, I learned that, in most all cases, you have to work across party lines to make things happen,” he told me. “And most of them happen in the center.” William Buckley, a reliable Reagan Republican and National Review founder, boosted the hawkish Democrat’s campaign when Lieberman beat the GOP incumbent for Senate in 1988. Lieberman was liberal on domestic policy and conservative on foreign policy, but above all he was a devoted aisle-straddler, loath to introduce a bill without a GOP co-sponsor. His achievements with strong liberal approval, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” were accomplished with GOP help.

In Lieberman’s eyes, Sen. Biden had been among one of the great centrists. But Lieberman said he doesn’t know what to think of the White House now. “I consider myself a longtime friend, and I admire Joe Biden — President Biden,” he told me, shaking his head. “But I do think the party has continued to move to the left again.”

His critiques were amorphous, light on specifics. He talked of the heyday of the moderate, business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council under President Bill Clinton — and how, by Lieberman’s reckoning, its decline has left a vacuum such that “groups more on the left of the party began to exercise disproportionate influence,” he said. “And I think they’ve had disproportionate influence over Joe Biden — President Biden — in a way that’s affected him.” Lieberman then gave a soliloquy on the dysfunction on political parties, dating back to the postwar era. (His lecture was so thorough that the motion-sensing lights in his office turned off while he was talking.)

The idea that Biden has let the far-left liberals drive the car incenses even the most moderate Democrats. (Gephardt: “What are you talking about, you need somebody at the top who will act in a bipartisan way? Biden’s done that for three years!”) No Labels started its presidential maneuvers at the beginning of 2022, when centrist anger over the president’s willingness to cut filibuster-proof deals with the left flank of his party, like the sweeping covid-adjacent economic package known as the American Rescue Plan, was still at a high point (along with inflation). But the Biden administration’s major legislative achievements have been a gun control bill and an infrastructure bill that each got a bunch of Republican votes in both chambers of Congress. And even though the Inflation Reduction Act passed on a party-line vote, Lieberman told me that he generally approves of that piece of economic legislation. “Maybe it spends too much money,” he said, “but honestly, it can be transformational in a positive way.”

No Labels disapproved of Biden using his executive authority to cancel student debt; Clancy, the chief strategist, called it an example of how Democrats are also prone to overreaching to achieve their political goals (though he said he wasn’t comparing them to MAGA Republicans on that score). Other detractors have simply gotten over it. “The president will disappoint you at some point,” says Third Way’s Bennett, who also opposes student debt cancellation.

Still, Clancy dismissed any analysis that ignores Biden’s sub-40 percent approval rating as Beltway myopia. The president’s unpopularity is the real liability here in terms of a potential Trump comeback, he argued. “We’re not making a subjective judgment about the extent to which Joe Biden was or was not bipartisan the first couple of years” he told me. “The reality is, if you look at how the public is viewing his administration, whether the country is more unified under his leadership, the answer to that is no.”

Rich Goodstein, a veteran Democratic lobbyist, had thought Hamas’s attack on Israel might convince Lieberman, a longtime supporter, to reconsider No Labels’ hostility to Biden’s bid for a second term. Lieberman has family in Israel, and the former senator was there, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when the war started. Biden has offered unyielding support of the Israeli government; Trump, despite his good relations with Israel, has dined with figures notorious for spewing antisemitism. “I thought maybe, just maybe, Lieberman would feel that the stakes in the 2024 election were now higher, and that he might actually support a president, Biden, performing exactly as Lieberman would want,” Goodstein said. (In an email, Lieberman called Biden “strongly and personally supportive of the US- Israel relationship” and applauded how the president has upheld that posture in light of the current conflict, which erupted after our interview.)

As our conversation wrapped, Lieberman decided he would divulge a bit of his Yom Kippur reflections after all.

“I must say that I prayed yesterday — you asked me about this — for the wisdom to help No Labels make the right decision about this in the coming year,” he said with a sigh. “It’s not going to be easy.”