Ever since Connecticut Democrats refused to back him for a fourth term in Congress, Joe Lieberman has been burnishing his independent credentials in the narrowly divided Senate while becoming increasingly critical of the Democratic Party on the war in Iraq.
Lieberman, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee, insists he is not actively considering joining the Republican Party. But he is keeping that possibility wide open as his disenchantment grows with Democratic leaders. The main sticking points are their attempts to end the war in Iraq and their hesitation to take a harder line against Iran.
"I think either [Democrats] are, in my opinion, respectfully, naíve in thinking we can somehow defeat this enemy with talk, or they're simply hesitant to use American power, including military power," Lieberman said in a wide-ranging interview with The Hill.
"There is a very strong group within the party that I think doesn't take the threat of Islamist terrorism seriously enough."
Lieberman says he is annoyed by the mudslinging on Capitol Hill and Democrats' unwillingness to work with President Bush. But his critics say he has contributed to that polarization by his rhetoric and refusal to compel Bush to find a new way forward in Iraq.
As Lieberman sees it, however, the Democratic Party has slipped away from its "most important and successful times" of the middle of last century, where it was tough on Communism and progressive on domestic policy.
"I fear that some people take this position also because anything President Bush is for, they'll be against, and that's wrong," said Lieberman, a staunch advocate of the war. "There's a great tradition in our history of partisanship generally receding when it comes to foreign policy. But for the moment we've lost that."
Even though he did not reclaim his Senate seat as a Democrat, Lieberman has been instrumental in two bills this Congress central to the 2006 Democratic campaign platform: an ethics and lobbying overhaul bill and a measure to implement recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. The 9/11 bill cleared Congress last week, and the ethics bill could win final approval this week before lawmakers adjourn for August recess.
But if Lieberman seems blunt about the direction of the Democratic Party, it may stem from his loss last August in the primaries to businessman Ned Lamont, who wooed Democratic voters with his anti-war platform. Lieberman calls his ensuing victory in the general election as an independent "inspiring." And remaining an independent has freed him to repeatedly buck the Democratic leadership on foreign policy and other legislative issues.
"Now that he knows he can win as an independent, he doesn't need the Democrats at all," said Kenneth Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. "I think it's absolutely emboldened him."
Lieberman was the only non-Republican in June to vote against Democratic efforts to pass a resolution expressing no confidence on embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He has no plans to endorse a Democrat for president, including the senior senator from his home state, Christopher Dodd, and is open to backing a Republican candidate for president. Lieberman also startled Democrats when he lent his support to the re-election bid of Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a top target of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
During this month's Iraq debate, Lieberman was working behind the scenes strategizing with Republicans and was front-and-center in several GOP press conferences denouncing Democratic tactics to push for an end to the war.
Lieberman was the lone non-Republican to vote against Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) efforts to shut down debate on an amendment to bring troops home by next April. (Reid voted against the cloture motion to file a similar motion at a later time.) Lieberman was also alone when he joined 40 Republicans in voting to kill an amendment by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to extend the time between troop deployments in Iraq.
"I'm disappointed that I am in so small a minority among Senate Democrats in taking the position that I have," Lieberman said.
But even as he has played a key role on some of their top domestic initiatives, Democrats have at times kept their distance from Lieberman. Last week, for instance, Reid held a press conference with several Democrats to tout their efforts to pass the 9/11 Commission bill and a homeland-security spending plan. Lieberman, the lead Senate negotiator on the measure and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was conspicuously absent.
Reid said it was not intentional to leave Lieberman out of the press conference, but Lieberman said not being invited was "surprising."
The distance that Democratic leaders appear to be keeping from Lieberman could result from the animosity that the Democrats' anti-war base has directed toward him. That criticism intensified even more last month, when he suggested military intervention against the Iranian government.
"He used to have a heart and soul, and he used to care about people," said Leslie Angeline, an activist with the anti-war group Code Pink, who held a 24-day hunger strike until she could meet with Lieberman about his position on Iran.
Angeline is facing an unlawful entry charge after she refused to leave Lieberman's office during her strike.
Even though Lieberman has become a lightning rod on the left, his prominent chairmanship and influence within the Democratic caucus is safe, for now, given the Democrats' razor-thin majority. Analysts say if Democrats increase their Senate majority from the 2008 elections, Lieberman's influence and role could be marginalized within the caucus.
Still, Lieberman is unfazed and says he has no intention of formally rejoining the Democratic Party.
"For now, I find being an independent more fun," Lieberman said. "The partisanship in this place is out of control. As an independent I've got the opportunity to speak out against that."
Excerpts from The Hill's interview with Sen. Lieberman
The Hill: How long do you see U.S. troops staying in Iraq?
Lieberman: I think some troops will be there for quite a while to secure the country, particularly from external threats. Look, I hope that this surge, which has always intended to be temporary, gets to a point sometime next year where it has succeeded enough in quelling the sectarian violence, particularly so that some of the troops that were part of the surge begin to come home. But my direct answer is that there is no explicit answer. The answer is that the troops will come home when the mission is completed.
The Hill: Obviously, a lot of Democrats don't feel that way.
Lieberman: I've noticed that.
The Hill: How dissatisfied are you with you right now with the way this debate has been handled in the Senate, especially during the defense authorization bill debate?
Lieberman: I'm disappointed that I am in so small a minority among Senate Democrats in taking the position that I have. While I obviously understand and respect that Iraq is a difficult issue, and people take different points of views, I'm surprised and disappointed that the split has followed partisan lines so much. It shouldn't be.
The Hill: Some of this criticism might seem surprising from someone who was the vice presidential nominee seven years ago. How far away from the Democratic Party do you see yourself right now?
Lieberman: Right now, certainly on Iraq, to some extent on some other foreign policy issues, like how do we confront Iran, how do we contain Iran, how do we deal with what that threat represents in the Middle East. To some extent on some defense issues, I have disagreements with most Democrats. But I agree with most Democrats on a lot of other issues, and a lot of domestic issues particularly.
The Hill: Are you open to switching parties and becoming a Republican?
Lieberman: I have no interest or desire in doing that. I wouldn't foreclose it as a possibility, but I hope that I don't reach that point.
The Hill: What would drive you over to that point?
Lieberman: Well, I guess I'd know it. It's like Justice [Potter] Stewart and his definition of obscenity: he couldn't define it but he'd know when he saw it. I think I'll know it when I feel it, but I hope I never get to that point.
© 2007 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp.