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Joseph Lieberman, an iconoclast who frustrated the Democratic Party, dies at 82

Despite frustrating colleagues, he usually stuck with his old party

Former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman talks with reporters as he walks through the Senate subway in Washington on June 22, 2021.
Former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman talks with reporters as he walks through the Senate subway in Washington on June 22, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Former Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent who sometimes baffled his original party over four terms in office and was the first Jewish vice presidential nominee, died on Wednesday at age 82.

According to a statement from his family, Lieberman died in Manhattan from complications from a fall. First elected as a Democrat in 1988, when he narrowly defeated Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Lieberman made a name for himself as a national security hawk and social liberal and was frequently a key swing vote and bipartisan deal-maker, heading up the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

When then-Vice President Al Gore picked Lieberman to be his running mate in 2000, it was widely viewed as helping inoculate the ticket against being too close to the scandals that defined the last years of the administration of President Bill Clinton that Gore served.

For instance, Lieberman said on the Senate floor during Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999 that Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was “not just inappropriate,” but “immoral and it is harmful.” Gore and Lieberman lost a close election to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, a contest that was determined by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore that halted a recount in Florida’s vote tallying.

Lieberman’s relationship with the Democratic Party soured in the 2000s, particularly over his support for the Iraq War. He lost his 2006 Senate primary to Ned Lamont who ran on an anti-war platform. Lieberman went on to run as an independent that year and beat Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger.

In the Senate, he retained his Democratic seniority and continued to caucus with the party, but as the 2008 election approached, he began a more public break with his party, culminating in his endorsement of his close friend and colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for president, complete with a throaty speech at the Republican National Convention.

That did not sit well with his Democratic colleagues, and some of them wanted to punish him after Barack Obama beat McCain, perhaps by taking away his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

But then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., knowing how ambitious Obama’s first term agenda was, pushed back on such efforts and kept Lieberman in the fold. He was one of the holdouts during the debate over the 2010 health care law, and was instrumental in beating back efforts to create a public option for health insurance. But he did vote with Democrats to establish one of Obama’s chief legacies. He chose not to run for a fifth term in 2012, and Democrat Christopher S. Murphy won that race and still serves in the seat.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, Wednesday expressing his condolences, Murphy summed up his successor: “In an era of political carbon copies, Joe Lieberman was a singularity.”

In recent years he was associated with the group No Labels and sought to draft a third-party, bipartisan presidential ticket. Facing criticism that such an effort would disproportionately give former President Donald Trump an advantage over President Joe Biden, Lieberman bristled in an interview last year with CQ Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski that No Labels was not a “secret plot to reelect Donald Trump.”

“That’s just ridiculous. I mean, there’s no basis in fact,” he said. He added that if it were a two-person race between Trump and Biden, he would definitely pull the lever for his longtime Senate colleague.

“If we don’t run a unity ticket and it’s Trump versus Biden, the choice for me is an easy one,” Lieberman said in the interview. “I will support Biden, even though I may think the Democrats … would be better off with a different candidate for president. If it comes down to Trump versus Biden, I think for the good of the country, I will vote for Biden and do so with general confidence that I’m doing the right thing.”

Despite the complicated relationship Lieberman had with the Democratic Party over the last two decades or so, that statement hinted at his overall record.

According to CQ Votes Studies, over the last two decades of his time in office, his “support for a president’s policies averages 90 percent during Democratic administrations and only 54 percent during Republican reigns dating back to President George Bush in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In measures of party unity, or how often a senator votes with the majority of his or her party against the majority of the other, Lieberman shows significantly more like-mindedness with lawmakers of his former party during GOP administrations and less during Democratic ones,” according to the 2012 edition of the CQ Roll Call Politics in America.

In a nutshell, he might have driven Democrats nuts, but he usually voted with them.

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