The Last Liberal: The Legacy of Joe Lieberman

By Kirchick, James | World Affairs, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Last Liberal: The Legacy of Joe Lieberman


Kirchick, James, World Affairs


In January 2004, the New Republic endorsed Joe Lieberman for president. By this time, recriminations against Democrats who had supported the Iraq War (or, in the parlance of the American left, "Bush's War") had already begun to arise in mainstream liberal circles, and the magazine's decision was unpopular with many of its readers. The young, online-savvy movement behind Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who had won over the party's base and much of the liberal intelligentsia with his virulent attacks against the Iraq War, appeared to be the wave of the Democratic future.

Nonetheless, the Democratic senator from Connecticut and 2000 vice-presidential candidate, the flagship journal of liberal opinion declared, offered the "clearest, bravest alternative" to Dean's "self-righteous delusion." The Vermont governor, the magazine argued, represented the "old Democratic affliction" of "an excessive faith in multilateralism and an insufficient faith in the moral potential of US power."

By contrast, Lieberman's support for the Iraq War and subsequent criticism of the Bush administration's failure to deploy more troops to stabilize the country exemplified his "brave, consistent foreign policy record." The magazine favorably contrasted Lieberman's voting for $87 billion in Iraq reconstruction aid with the "contradictory" positions of fellow candidates Wesley Clark and John Kerry (the eventual Democratic nominee), who supported the war yet "opportunistically opposed" the funding package. In addition to his tough foreign policy stance, which fell squarely within a "hawkish liberal tradition" going back decades, Lieberman's "overall economic record is progressive and responsible," the magazine concluded.

Four years later, the New Republic would decry the "Zell Millerization" of Lieberman, a reference to the Democratic Georgia senator who endorsed George W. Bush in 2004 with a rabid speech at the Republican National Convention. This was an absurd analogy, not least because of the men's completely different temperaments (Lieberman, whatever his political virtues, can scarcely vary the tone of his voice). Mainly, though, Miller had actually voted more often with Republicans than with his fellow Democrats, whereas Lieberman boasted a party loyalty record higher than fourteen of his Democratic colleagues. That year, Lieberman earned an eighty-five percent rating from Americans for Democratic Action. No matter. Lieberman had "become a cog in the Republican message machine," the magazine declared. "He's becoming a standard-issue conservative," Peter Beinart, editor of the New Republic when it endorsed Lieberman, would later bemoan in the Daily Beast.

Liberal rage at Lieberman has only increased with time. In 2009, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein imputed lethal motives to Lieberman, alleging that his opposition to elements of President Obama's health care reform package indicated a "willing [ness] to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score." The New Republic's TRB columnist echoed that view, and suggested that the "wrong, uninformed" opinions expressed by Lieberman--a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School and a former editor of the Yale Daily News--were a result of the fact that he "isn't actually all that smart." Lieberman, this editor surmised, "is the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of a cultural stereotype that Jews are smart and good with numbers."

What happened in these intervening years? One thing is the transformation of the New Republic from a publication that upheld a traditionally liberal, hawkish worldview into something altogether different, mimicking a similar movement in the Democratic Party and the American left. After dropping out of the 2004 presidential race, Lieberman lost his state's 2006 Democratic Senate primary to Ned Lamont, a left-wing, antiwar challenger with inherited millions and fanatic support from the online "netroots. …

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