Joe Lieberman, from his indie perch

In a Salon interview, the super-hawk senator talks about his "liberation" from the Democratic Party, John McCain's campaign nosedive, and why Clinton, Obama and the other Dems are wrong on Iraq.

Published August 3, 2007 12:33PM (EDT)

It may have been collateral damage, but the fiery end to Joe Lieberman's political career as an orthodox Democrat ranks among the most dramatic casualties of the Iraq war on the home front. A year ago this week, Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, lost a high-voltage Senate primary race in Connecticut to antiwar challenger Ned Lamont. But then running as an independent in the general election, Lieberman, an unstinting champion of the war, romped home to his fourth Senate term.

The national 2006 Democratic sweep left Lieberman, who now calls himself an Independent Democrat, as the ultimate swing vote in the narrowly divided Senate. By choosing to caucus with the Democrats, Lieberman, in effect, elected Harry Reid as Senate majority leader. But even as Lieberman continues to vote with the Democrats on most domestic legislation, he has been moving steadily away from any identification with the party, saying that he might not endorse the party's 2008 presidential nominee and refusing to categorically rule out someday becoming a Republican.

Wednesday afternoon, Salon interviewed Lieberman in his Senate office. Sitting in an armchair with his suit jacket off, tapping his right foot for emphasis, Lieberman reveled in his status as the most independent man in the Senate. (The interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

It is almost a year to the day since you lost the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary to Ned Lamont and filed for reelection as an independent. Are you happier now politically then you were as a Democrat?

We joke about "Liberation Day" [the day he filed as an independent], but there's a lot of seriousness to it. I have felt liberated. It's interesting because I have always felt that I was an independent-minded senator. It was in part what got me into the difficulty I was in among my fellow Democrats about Iraq.

There is no question that I have felt totally liberated and have enjoyed the freedom that came in some sense because the Connecticut Democrats who voted in the primary last year gave me my release by refusing to renominate me.

What happened last year clearly intersected with and said a lot of things about our political system. One was how intensely Democrats feel about Iraq. And -- I say this with a certain amount of humility since I shouldn't be an analyst -- that single-issue voting has risen in both parties.

Why in retrospect do you think that you lost the primary?

I lost because of my position on Iraq. And because my opponent [Ned Lamont] convinced enough people, not just on Iraq, to vote against President Bush, who was not then, nor is he now, very popular among Democrats. So to vote against me was [portrayed as] a way to send a message to President Bush, which was, as I said in the primary, an odd thing to do since I voted against him on most things.

So here I am. And I think it is my mandate to work across party lines to get things done. I never would have guessed that I would have ended up as the 51st Democratic vote. So that was quite a twist. And that led me to be the chairman of the Homeland Security committee.

I am very proud to say that two of the major accomplishments of this first six months are bills that I am very proud of that came out of my committee. The Homeland Security 9/11 bill, and lobbying and ethics reform. And I have initiated a number of proposals that matter and done it on a bipartisan basis.

Things like the legislation you are introducing with [Virginia Republican] John Warner for a cap-and-trade system on greenhouse emissions?

To me it's very exciting and a turning point in the efforts to respond to a real problem. Warner, significantly, voted twice against McCain-Lieberman. [This was an effort to place limits on greenhouse gas emissions that failed in the Senate in 2003 and 2005.] He's changed his position because he sees the science and it bothers him and he wants to be part of the solution.

Clearly, I've continued to be different from most of the Senate Democratic caucus on Iraq -- and to some extent on Iran. But it is surprising to me that I have been alone on some of the key votes on Iraq. I know that my position on Iraq is a minority position among Democrats, but it has surprised me and disappointed me that I have been alone on some of those key votes.

Let me ask you about another vote -- your vote that puzzled me the most. That was [in June] when you were the only Democrat to oppose a no-confidence against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. This was a vote that had nothing to do with the war in Iraq. And you are both a former Connecticut attorney general and someone who remembers the politicization of the Justice Department under John Mitchell during Watergate.

Let me reconstruct that. It was earlier in the year. I think I thought that it was essentially a political vote. And the question on Gonzales was ultimately -- he serves at the pleasure of the president. And that there was nothing but political intent to the resolution. Forgive me, I should go back and look that up.

Rather than getting into that, what do you think of Gonzales now? Do you think he should stay as attorney general?

That's the question I don't answer. Look, I will say that his credibility has really been in doubt. He has handled his appearances here -- and I must apologize by saying --

I know that you're not on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I actually haven't focused on his appearances, so I am relying now on the media as to what actually happened.

You're on safe ground.

So based on what I have seen [in the press] and with an occasional conversation with a colleague, he did not do well and he diminished his credibility. In most administrations, the president would have asked him to leave or he would have left. So I leave it to them [the White House]. But his credibility is in doubt. And as a former attorney general, that's not a good thing. And therefore -- but I'm only a senator. To me, that's something that the attorney general should take up with the president.

You talk about John Warner coming around and accepting the science on global warming. But doesn't it trouble you that the Bush White House has been so resistant to accept that kind of science?

Yes, totally. You find that there are slight moves from the White House on this. But it has been a woeful lack of leadership, of open-mindedness to judge the actual science.

There's an interesting change that is occurring around them [the Bush administration], though it hasn't moved them yet. A lot of businesses are now coming here and asking us to do something about climate change. And part of that is that they're beginning to accept the science and they feel a moral responsibility. And they also have an economic responsibility. Because they think that if they don't do something, their companies are going to wind up paying for it. And there are also states that are taking the lead on this in classic federalist fashion. But the White House seems to not be affected by this.

But I have this optimism. It will not be easy to pass our bill through the Senate and the House. But if we do, I can't believe that the president wouldn't be open to signing it. Because it will leave such a negative legacy here on such a critical global problem that will affect our future. So I have been very critical of them on this.

Probably 95 percent of Salon readers violently disagree with you on Iraq. And that's probably a conservative estimate. Is there something that you could say to them so they could look back in, say, five years and say, "You know, Joe Lieberman may have had a point"?

I know mistakes were made in the way the administration advocated for the war with an almost exclusive emphasis on WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. But I think they did the right thing in overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

I think that very serious mistakes were made in the prosecution of the war after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. I believe that the president stuck with Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld much too long. And stuck with a strategy that was not working for much too long.

But last fall they began to reevaluate. They brought [Gen. David] Petraeus back. He had, in some sense, been yanked out of Iraq because he had some odd views, according to the prevailing wisdom [under Rumsfeld]. The president went to him because people told him that he was the smartest guy we have in the military in counterinsurgency. A new strategy, a new general -- and I think there are some signs of success.

Here's what I would say to people who are opposed to the war. Acknowledging all the mistakes that were made -- and even if you thought that we shouldn't have gone in -- how this war ends will have a substantial effect on our security and our children's security in the years ahead. If we picked up as quickly as we could and pulled out -- as a lot of people here [in the Senate] think we should -- it will be a very damaging loss of credibility for us. It will be a loss for us and it will be a victory for al-Qaida and Iran, who will capitalize on our retreat.

Admiral [Mike] Mullen, the [nominee for] chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was at our Armed Services Committee hearing. He's not a cheerleader for the war in Iraq. He gave a very straightforward [report saying], "We're making progress militarily," but he's very upset about the lack of political progress. If we just pull out of there, not only are we going to be risking the lives of our troops who are there, but we will be doing exactly what Iran and al-Qaida want us to do. It will have a terrible effect on the whole region.

He [Mullen] was quite interesting. He said that Iran is now supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. They have had an historic hatred between them. And Mullen used the phrase, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

What does that mean? Iran is trying to support anybody who will put pressure on us to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, in one sentence, what would I say? If we pull out of Iraq while there is still hope to stabilize the country -- and I believe there is -- it will be a victory for Iran and al-Qaida. And it will destabilize the Middle East. And stability in the Middle East has, for a long time now, been directly related to what we think to be security for the United States.

Do you see differences among the Democratic presidential candidates, particularly the ones you serve with in the Senate, on how we pull out from Iraq? They're all in favor of pulling out, but, for example, Hillary Clinton has talked about residual forces, and Chris Dodd is saying no residual troops. And Barack Obama is closer to the Hillary Clinton point of view. Do you see these as significant differences?

I was there [as a presidential candidate] in 2004. I know the Democratic primary electorate. They [the Democratic candidates] are racing to get ahead of this antiwar feeling among the Democratic primary voters. They're trying to compete about who can get more troops out more quickly. But if you parse them, you can find some differences, you're absolutely right.

A couple of months ago, Hillary Clinton said in a New York Times interview that she thought that it was important that we understand that there would be some longer-term presence of American forces in Iraq -- and there have to be. It was a disappointing day when Clinton and Obama voted for Reid-Feingold, which would have us get most of our troops out by next March.

What about Joe Biden? He, unlike his Senate rivals, voted for the latest round of war appropriations.

You can parse different things out of Joe's positions. Everything is comparative. In this field, he has been the most willing to occasionally say things about Iraq that are not calculated to win applause at a debate or a town hall meeting.

He said in the YouTube debate, after Bill Richardson said, "I'm for every troop out by the end of this year," ... Joe [Biden] said, "Let's be honest about it. We're not going to get all the troops out by the end of the year." Well, we can't.

It's an accurate rendition of what Richardson and Biden said in the debate.

Look, the overall concern I have is that this race to pacify the antiwar voters in the Democratic primary electorate means that the Democratic candidates for president will take a position, even in a country that's not satisfied with the way the war is going, that will alarm the majority of voters. Because it will be to the left of where most voters are.

Once again -- notwithstanding all the negative feelings toward President Bush and the Republicans in Congress -- this election, in my opinion, will be a tossup. On the central question of security ... people understand that this is a dangerous world. And, ultimately, on education and healthcare and all that, they want the president to lead, but they know their member of Congress can do some things on that. But when it comes to security, ultimately, that's what they turn to a president for.

I worry that whoever gets the Democratic nomination will have a hard time scampering back to assure people that they're prepared to take on the Islamist extremists and [any] other nation that threatens our security.

Turning to another thing --

They don't use that. You'll have to check it. But they don't use the term "Islamist extremism" or "Islamist terrorism" in the debates.

Are you saying it's "political correctness" on the part of the Democrats?

You've got to acknowledge the problem.

You got a lot of criticism from bloggers for making a recent speech to Christians United for Israel. Everybody in politics makes speeches to groups that they haven't fully researched. Did you know exactly what you were endorsing when you spoke to them?

I know that they were very supportive of Israel, as I am. That they were supportive of the war in Iraq, which I am. And that they were very agitated about the rise of this particular Iranian regime. So I certainly didn't know -- and I don't know -- I go before groups all the time when I don't agree with them on everything.

So you are not endorsing their belief that the Rapture is imminent and that war in the Middle East presages that.

I have seen some things where Pastor [John] Hagee himself, the founder of the group, doesn't give support to that notion. But that's a private theological matter.

Two reasons I went. One is a sign of my independence and liberation. I'm a believer that the more people you have in politics, the better. And that includes people of faith. If that is their motivation -- and no pun intended -- God bless them.

On the purpose for which the [group] is organized -- support of our ally Israel and opposition to extremist regimes that threaten both Israel and the United States -- I don't have any regrets about it. It was fascinating to me, actually, how enthusiastic the response was to the comments that I made about Iraq and Iran the night that I spoke.

Let me ask one last question. Do you see any similarity between the fall of John McCain as a presidential candidate -- leading the polls for a long while and then challenging his party on a visceral issue -- and the fall of Joe Lieberman as a presidential candidate, who about this point in 2003 was leading in the polls?

Maybe this is why McCain and I are such close friends. I respect him. His candidacy really suffered for his honestly and sincerely held belief in immigration reform. I don't think it was the Iraq war.

No, it was immigration for McCain, and Iraq for you.

It's hard to compare two campaigns. Even notwithstanding the Iraq war, it is possible that I would not have won the Democratic nomination in '04 for other reasons. But that was clearly the main reason why people were not voting for me.

But John [McCain] may come back. It's still early. I think he still can come back. I think he's different. He has honest and heroic qualities that may bring him back as this goes on. It probably requires some of those who are in the lead to stumble. But we'll see.

Do you see a chance for the Democratic nominee to be somebody who isn't named Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?

Anything is possible in politics. It could be somebody named John Edwards. But I think the odds are that it will be Clinton or Obama.

Thank you.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Democratic Party Global Warming Iraq Joe Lieberman Middle East