On Lieberman's Exit: Some Praise His Service, Some Happy To See Him Go
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|Thu, 01-20-2011 - 10:19am|
The Democrat-turned-independent invoked the Bible passage that Pete Seeger adapted into the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!": "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven."
The allusion to the "turn" in his life went over well with a crowd of longtime supporters at the Marriott hotel who praised him as decent and principled.
But it also rang true, in a different way, with disaffected Connecticut
Democrats, who said Lieberman took an opportunistic turn away from them, and
away from his past principles, bringing himself to a career dead end that made
Those widely divergent views were on display in the political reactions voiced after Lieberman's speech. Praise was widespread — President Barack Obama, for example, congratulated him "on an extraordinary career in public service" and said "even if we don't always see eye to eye, I always know Joe is coming from a place of principle."
But no such customary bouquets were tossed his way by Democrats from the party's liberal-progressive wing. Their criticism represents what polls say are the views of a enough party voters to dash any re-election hopes he may have had.
"It was by constantly using the Democrats as a foil, to ingratiate himself with the Fox newscasters and Republicans, that caused bitterness," said Bill Curry, the former state comptroller and two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee. "I never saw anyone so adept at passing off opportunism as high-mindedness."
Lieberman's support for the Iraq war in the George W. Bush years, his 2008 support of Republican presidential nominee John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin, and his decision to block key proposals in the national health care bill in 2009 were among examples Curry gave to support his views.
"I have mixed feelings about it; I was looking forward to beating him once and for all," said another Democratic liberal, Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Swan was campaign manager in 2006 for Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont, who beat Lieberman in that summer's Democratic Senate nominating primary only to see the incumbent win re-election as an independent that November.
By far, most of Wednesday's public pronouncements about Lieberman were positive. A few examples:
-- Obama, a fellow Democrat, said: "Joe has spent four decades fighting for what he believes in on behalf of the people of Connecticut. From cracking down on polluters and deadbeat dads as Connecticut's attorney general to his years of work defending our nation's security on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees to his relentless efforts in recent months to repeal don't ask, don't tell, his work has touched countless lives in his home state and across the country."
-- U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said: "This is a great loss for the state and the nation, not only in service and experience, but in terms of tone, temperament and humor. … Coming on the heels of the retirement of Sen. Chris Dodd, today's announcement will leave a huge experience gap in both Connecticut and the U.S. Senate. … A champion of the environment, civil rights and national security legislation, Joe Lieberman remained true to his convictions whether others agreed with him or not."
-- Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, a Democrat, thanked Lieberman "for his decades of service to our community, state, and country. Federal dollars coming to Hartford for homeland security measures and our public safety complex have been instrumental. The end of his term will mark the end of an era in Connecticut politics."
-- McCain, the senator from Arizona and 2006 Republican presidential nominee, told CNN he hopes Obama would consider Lieberman as defense secretary, calling him "one of the most informed members of the Senate on national security issues and homeland security issues."
-- State Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy said Lieberman "rightly saw the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism and the long-term dangers its followers pose to the safety of this country. Sen. Lieberman continued to support policies that have brought political freedom to Iraq and to Afghanistan when many Democrats sought to end that commitment prematurely. These acts of courage and resolve almost cost Sen. Lieberman his political career in 2006 when radical liberals ousted him as the candidate of the Democrat Party. … To Sen. Lieberman, it was always about his country. Sen. Lieberman also demonstrated a sense of decency and generosity to others, regardless of party or position."
Although Lieberman, 68, is now a political independent, he still caucuses with majority Democrats in the Senate.
Alienating The Left
While Healy and others praised Lieberman for crossing party lines, a New York political consultant who has watched Lieberman over the years said he sealed his fate in 2008 by taking the stage at the GOP convention.
"I think he shot himself in the foot by going to the Republican convention in 2008 and speaking out for McCain," said Arthur "Jerry" Kremer, a former New York state legislator from Long Island and now chairman of Empire Government Strategies, a grassroots lobbying group. "Most people remembered that [Lieberman] had been the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000," and many viewed it as an opportunistic turnabout, he said.
"There was so little for him to gain by going and speaking at the Republican convention," Kremer said. "He wasn't going to woo the Republican base into supporting him" — and, meanwhile, by backing McCain over Obama, he was alienating even the centrist Democrats who stuck with him after 2006 when he lost the liberal Democrats over the Iraq war, Kremer said.
"He broke all ties with the Democrats who considered him independent. … and didn't cement any new ties. It was a poor strategy that brought him no benefits, and I think it's the one thing that contributed to him not running again, more than anything else. … I just think his compass broke and he went in the wrong direction."
Curry and Swan said in separate interviews that although Lieberman was able to win re-election as an independent in 2006, that never would have worked in 2012.
They said Lieberman had alienated his Democratic voter base from 2006 onward — and that even though he'd cozied up to national Republicans, he is still too liberal in GOP voters' eyes. In 2012, Republicans are sure to run a much stronger Senate candidate than their 2006 nominee, Alan Schlesinger, who won only 10 percent of the statewide vote that year. That meant the arithmetic for another independent candidacy wouldn't add up, they said.
"It has seemed to me for a year that he had no way forward," Curry said.
'I've Never Shied Away'
Lieberman disputed that proposition in his speech at the Marriott Wednesday.
"I know that some people have said that if I ran for re-election, it would be a difficult campaign for me. So what else is new? It probably would be a difficult campaign for me," he said. "But I have run many difficult campaigns before."
Those campaigns, he said, ranged "from my first one in 1970 against the incumbent Democratic state Senate majority leader, to my 1988 campaign against the incumbent Republican U.S. senator [Lowell Weicker], to my campaign for re-election to the Senate in 2006 at the height of the controversy over the Iraq war. … Most observers and pollsters thought I would not win. But with an awful lot of help from independents, Democrats and Republicans — including many of you here today — in each case I did win."
"I've never shied from a good fight and I never will," he said.
Lieberman was introduced by his wife, Hadassah, who called him "Joey." He was surrounded by his three children — Becca, Matt and Ethan — and six of his 10 grandchildren.
He threw out a laugh line moments after starting the speech, joking that he had told his wife he would retire from the Senate when talk show host Regis Philbin left television. (Philbin announced his retirement Tuesday.) Lieberman wished Philbin, a Greenwich resident, luck and said, "maybe he and I will be hanging out together."
He alluded to his independent — some would say contrarian — streak. "I have not always fit comfortably into conventional political boxes — maybe you've noticed that? — Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative," he said.
"Because I have always thought my first responsibility is not to serve a political party but to serve my constituents, my state and my country and then to work across party lines to make sure good things get done for them."
'Right Choice For Him'
One of Lieberman's Marriott listeners was Roy Occhiogrosso, who worked as a political consultant to Lieberman in 2006 and now is a senior staffer for Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Occhiogrosso called Lieberman's speech reflective and said it hit all the right notes. "Politics has changed quite a bit since he first got into it," he said.
Also in the room was Andrew McDonald, a former state senator from Stamford who now serves as Malloy's legal counsel. He noted Lieberman's deep roots in Stamford and marveled at the longevity of his political career: McDonald, who is 44, wasn't even in kindergarten when Lieberman's was first elected to the state Senate 40 years ago.
"He made the right choice for him," McDonald said. "There's no doubt that he is very comfortable with his decision and his future."
But, later Wednesday, consumer activist Ralph Nader, a registered Connecticut voter in Winsted who has tangled publicly with Lieberman, said: "He couldn't leave the Senate fast enough as far as I'm concerned. He's not only driving Democrats nuts down here, but he's become a right-wing extremist on everything except the environment and gay rights."
Despite Lieberman's career as a state and national figure, Nader said that his decision to retire from the Senate is not the end of an era. "It's the end of a nightmare," Nader said.
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