Lowell Weicker served three terms in the U.S. Senate from Connecticut as a Republican, before being defeated by then-Democrat Joe Lieberman – with an assist from influential conservatives – in 1988. Two years later, in a rare feat, he won Connecticut’s gubernatorial election as a third-party candidate.
In a Friday interview, Weicker – now 82 – slammed the modern GOP, scorched his old foe Lieberman, and urged an upheaval in how America funds public schools. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
What went down in D.C. over the past month – has it told us anything about the Republican Party that we didn’t know?
I suppose the obvious answer is that the party is so far off to the right that it can’t even come to grips with reality in America today. Now, that’s the easy answer because it’s clear that the Republicans, through their most extreme members, are showing that tendency. But I think the time has come to focus the blame where it belongs, and that’s with the American people.
You cannot have a government where 46 percent vote for president, about 35 percent vote for Senate, about 25 percent for congressmen. When you get to those total local percentages, that means that any dedicated group within the percentage can have an enormous weight, way beyond their numbers, on policy.
Why do you think it is that the conservatives you’re talking about have been able to wield that outsize influence?
Let’s say out of the 35 percent of Americans that are voting for senator, there’s 5 percent that are dedicated even, and that’s it … As the conservatives stick together, then they can go ahead and outvote everyone else …
The Republican Party started to purge its moderates … starting in about ‘86. I was part of that purge in ‘88 when I lost as senator. Now you’re left with the religious right and the rural votes — and that’s it.
What do you think caused that purge?
A bunch of dedicated conservatives. I mean, don’t forget you had back in the ‘80s William F. Buckley and his conservative movement, and they decided to — rather than be an independent party, they figured that they would go ahead and worm their way into the main Republican Party. And they did that very effectively.
If you were running for office again, would it be as a Republican?
Oh, I don’t think so. I think that if the Republican Party stays as it is now, I would still run as an independent, as I did when I ran for governor. The problem would be that if I ran as a Republican, then I’d be subject to Republican primaries and Republican conventions. Anybody that runs has to kowtow so far to the right that they become unelectable come election time.
What do you think is the solution to the voter participation problem you identified?
That’s a very difficult question, and I’ve thought about it a lot. You could certainly have mandatory voting … I’d hate to see that kind of mandatory participation. But I think that we’ve come to the point where we’ve got to get people out to the polls. Now I think it can be done, but it has to be done by exciting candidates and intelligent candidates. And that brings me to another point: Everybody is so down on politicians, and so it really discourages young people from getting into politics … Rather than condemn people that are politicians, I think we ought to encourage them to go into public service.
You mentioned your own “purge” from office. What’s your assessment of Sen. Lieberman’s record in Congress?
I know I’m not supposed to comment on my fellow senators or congressmen, but I think Lieberman was a god-awful United States senator. I think that he was all over the map as to what his beliefs were. And very much, by the time he got out of politics, I think was totally irrelevant to the needs of the people of the state of Connecticut. I think everybody should understand, and I fully acknowledge, that Joe Lieberman beat me — but with the help of William F. Buckley. So you had a sort of a maverick fight a Democrat — but one who owed a lot to conservative Republicans.
Do you have regrets about that race?
Yes. I have regrets to the extent I don’t think I worked as hard as I did in all my other races … In the ‘88 race I sort of rested on my oars, feeling that the people of the state of Connecticut owe me a reelection. Well, nobody owes anybody anything, as I found out to my regret. And because I didn’t work, I lost.
Are there any “god-awful” senators serving in the Senate now?
I’m sure there are plenty of them.
What do you make of the calls to change the rules of the Senate, to change the filibuster, for example?
I did my share of filibusters when I was in the Senate, mainly to stop many of Ronald Reagan’s proposals, like prayer in school. I am very protective of that tactic, because I think sometimes [the] minority has to use it in order to preserve some very important principles.
What do you think about the way that it’s been used under leader McConnell?
I’ve given you my viewpoint on it. It’s not a question of McConnell or anyone else. It’s a question of — if it were me, I think you’d still need two-thirds to close [debate] off. I think it’s down to 60 now. I’m very much in favor of the filibuster.
The increase in cloture votes on things like nominations, including nominations that ultimately are approved by large margins — does that bother you?
Sure, it bothers me. Because it’s using this as a routine tool instead of something that’s very, very important.
The question of an income tax played a great role in your [gubernatorial] campaign and your time in the governor’s office. Has there been a change in the way voters and politicians talk about taxes, wrestle with taxes, in the U.S.?
No. No, there hasn’t been. Because very frankly, we’re far outspending our revenues and that’s the reason why the United States is in trouble, and it’s the reason why so many states are in trouble.
Who should be paying more in taxes now, if anyone?
You should have a progressive income tax where the wealthy pay more, and you should certainly have corporate taxes that are commensurate with what that community demands of government. So I stand where everybody stood when the income tax was first devised in the United States, which was it was to be a progressive situation, in order to go ahead and protect the poorest of our people.
Given your role in the Watergate investigation: We often hear things compared to Watergate or presidents compared to Nixon. How good do you think the media and elected representatives have been at accurately assessing the seriousness of various scandals and allegations against politicians?
I don’t think the media does half the job that it used to do going back to the time of Watergate. Watergate was unique in the sense that you were confronting a president of the United States in a way that had never been done before, so you had the best of the media doing the best of the reporting. Now it’s just become very easy to slap the Watergate label on anything. And indeed the media I don’t think does half the hard work that was involved with Watergate. Now probably part of that is the fact that your print media has gone way down, relying mostly on the electronic — either on the television tube or on people’s computers or whatever have you. But I think investigative reporting should once again go back to the days when you had real hard workers doing the fact-finding.
Connecticut has some of the greatest income inequality in the United States. The state Supreme Court decades ago told the state that education funding was illegally unequal. There’s now once again a lawsuit to try to force the state to equalize education funding. Is that something you support?
Absolutely. You’ve gone from racial inequality to economic inequality — in other words, the result is the same when it comes to education and many other things … I think the racial part has been solved. But as long as you have the huge disparity in economics, you’re going to end up at the same place that you were 20 years ago. So I’m all for a challenge.
When improving education in the U.S. is talked about, a great deal of the conversation is about standards, and teachers’ working conditions, it seems – much less of it is about funding and inequalities in funding for schools.
Yeah, I think that’s true … In Connecticut, of course, the problem is that you have each community responsible for much of the education budget. Well, clearly there’s a huge difference between, let’s say, Greenwich, Conn. — my old hometown — and let’s say Bridgeport, Conn., which is a blue-collar to poor town. My feeling on that is that you ought to eliminate local funding and have total state funding, thus equalizing the amount of money that’s put into education.
And when you say “the racial part has been solved,” are you concerned by the levels – in some cases, increasing levels – of racial segregation in the school system?
I have to disagree with you on that. I think gradually that problem is being solved; that doesn’t mean to say that it’s just been totally solved. All you have to do is take a look at the graduates coming out of our colleges, and post-graduate degrees, and the improvement made at the high school level; I mean, we’re making progress in that area. But the problem is that more often than not, poverty is associated with race, and so in that sense you haven’t solved the racial problem. And it’s mainly an economic problem.
So what do you think is the way forward for the Republican Party?
I think it has to become involved with social issues … Where I have my problem is on all the various social issues, mainly those that address women and minorities, gay people — I mean, I go right down the list — there’s a total disconnect on those issues between reality and the Republican Party. And until they reform in that area, they’re not gonna win anything. And I think one-party government is horrible. So it’s essential both at the state and national level that the Republicans pull back and make themselves relevant to the important social issues of the day.
When you say a “disconnect” from reality, what do you mean?
When I talk equality, it’s men and women. When the Republicans talk equality, they don’t dictate anything to men, it’s all dictated to women. And the same holds true on other fronts in the social area. I mean, take a look how long it took for Republicans to come around to the view that gay people should have every right that everybody else has. They’re Americans! And that’s the only thing that matters … Take a look at the minority populations, whether it’s Latino or whether it’s black — none of them vote for Republicans. Why? Because Republicans don’t relate to the issues that particularly impact upon those racial minorities.
Given what you’re saying, how prevalent do you think sexism or racism are within the Republican Party?
Oh, I think it clearly shows. I mean I don’t know what the percentages are, but it seems to me when I hear Republicans talking, I hear a lot of sexism, I hear a lot of racism …
Barry Goldwater was a very good friend of mine. And Barry Goldwater told me this was back in nineteen-ninety-whatever-it-was: He said, “Gosh, I’d be considered a liberal right now by the Republican Party.” That’s the direction the party has gone, and has been going for a long time. And it will continue to go that way until moderate people stand up.