Why the ambivalence from a sturdy liberal Democrat like Klein about a guy who’d committed the unpardonable sins of supporting the Iraq war after other hawkish liberals had turned against it and campaigning for John McCain for president against Barack Obama? The strange thing about Lieberman is that both these betrayals and his effectiveness in supporting signature liberal proposals--like his crucial role in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat for the liberal side on DADT-repeal--are perfectly in character. That raises a question: how did Lieberman manage to get himself excommunicated from the liberal congregation despite having been a pretty reliable liberal vote in the Senate for over twenty years?
We should be careful not to mistake effects for causes. You can’t blame liberal Democrats for regarding Lieberman’s support for McCain’s presidential aspirations as the ultimate betrayal. But it was arguably an understandable reaction on Lieberman’s part to being summarily exiled from the community of liberals in 2006. We shouldn’t forget the extraordinary unanimity and vehemence with which liberals opposed him in his primary loss to Ned Lamont. That, you’ll recall, was six short years after Lieberman had been the widely admired vice-presidential candidate of the Democratic Party and only three years after he’d been a serious contender for its presidential nomination in the 2004 election cycle. Can you think of another Democratic politician falling from grace so precipitously? Under the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that Lieberman was nursing a grudge against erstwhile liberal comrades.
What, exactly, was the unpardonable heresy that had gotten Lieberman in trouble with liberals by 2006? Granted, he’d sometimes done his best to antagonize them. Unlike other once-hawkish liberals, Lieberman hadn’t camouflaged his original support for the Administration’s strategic objectives in Iraq after the 2004 election by changing the subject to pre-war intelligence and the Administration’s incompetence in combating the Iraqi insurgency. Indeed, his continued support for Bush’s war policy was sometimes bizarrely theatrical—other Democrats, for instance, resisted the temptation to kiss Bush after his 2005 State of the Union address.
Lieberman got himself in more hot water with liberals in early 2006 when he voted for cloture in the debate over Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court. That didn’t keep him from voting against Alito when the nomination came to the Senate floor, principally on the ground that Alito was likely to be hostile to abortion rights as a Supreme Court Justice.
Yet these transgressions hardly explain why Lieberman had become a liberal pariah. As of the summer of 2006, Lieberman’s position on the Iraq war wasn’t much different in substance from Hillary Clinton’s, yet she was still the presumptive frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Liberal indignation over Lieberman’s Alito votes is even harder to understand. Lieberman’s pro-choice credentials were impeccable. Yet he was reviled for voting for cloture on a presumptively pro-life judicial nominee by many of the same liberals who enthusiastically supported the 2006 Pennsylvania Senate candidacy of Robert Casey Jr., despite his insistently pro-life views.
So it’s hard to believe that liberal indignation at Lieberman was fueled principally by disagreements over public policy. Plenty of politicians in good standing in liberal circles have cast as many ideologically anomalous votes as Lieberman. It looks to me like his unforgivable sin was having the audacity to believe that, having won the 2004 election, Bush voters were entitled to have their candidate accorded the deference that the political opposition normally owes a duly elected president. That was too much for liberals contesting the legitimacy of the Bush presidency on the ground that he’d taken the country to war under false pretenses.
That was made clear by the reports of many liberals (see e.g., Kirsten Powers here) that their patience with Lieberman was finally exhausted when he published a December 2005 Wall Street Journal piece urging, yet again, that we stay the course in Iraq. What galled liberals wasn’t so much the reiteration of Lieberman’s longstanding position on the war as the incendiary observation with which he concluded the piece: "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush,” he advised, “to acknowledge he'll be commander in chief for three more years. We undermine the president's credibility at our nation's peril."
In less interesting times, these words would have been ignored as another tiresome variation on the old saw that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Yet, for most liberals, the suggestion that it might not be a great idea to impugn the legitimacy of a duly-elected President at a time of war was the worst kind of betrayal. Granted, it’s not always easy to say when vigorous partisanship crosses the line separating it from an unwarranted assault on democratic legitimacy. Yet liberals weren’t prepared even to hear, much less to credit, Lieberman’s suggestion that there was a line to cross.
Liberal reaction to Lieberman’s Alito votes raised the same issues. Most liberals regarded voting for cloture and against the nomination as a contradiction that proved that Lieberman’s long-professed commitment to abortion rights was inauthentic. The reaction of the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization of Women (“CT NOW”) expressed prevailing liberal opinion:
The crucial distinction between the rightness and the legitimacy of public decisions was entirely lost on the leaders of CT NOW. To them, and many other liberals, the difference between the question of whether Alito should sit on the Supreme Court and the separate question of whether the majority that voted for Bush was entitled to have the Senate vote on his Supreme Court nomination was a matter of “symbolism without substance.” They withdrew their longstanding support for Lieberman because he had the audacity to suggest that liberals’ readiness to impose their values on the majority of voters who had authorized Bush to act in their name belied their democratic professions.“The women of Connecticut expected that our senators, who call themselves pro-choice and claim to be supporters of women’s rights, would use every measure available to prevent the confirmation of a judge who undermines and disregards them. . . . Senator Lieberman did not. Senator Lieberman's vote to shut down debate had the effect of anointing Judge Alito as a Supreme Court Justice. As Kathleen Sloan, Executive Director of CT NOW explained, Senator Lieberman's vote against Alito on Tuesday was 'symbolism without substance'.” (Press Release of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Organization of Women, February 1, 2006 (emphasis added).)
How times have changed. Now liberal passions about Iraq have cooled to the point that Joe Biden isn’t embarrassed to call Iraqi democracy one of the Obama administration’s “great achievements.” Liberals are talking about the need to reign in filibusters, presumably like the one liberal Democrats mounted unsuccesssfully against Justice Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. And liberals have worn themselves out over the last two years deploring the anti-Obama rhetoric coming from Republicans on the ground that it crosses the line separating spirited political advocacy from civically irresponsible attacks on the legitimacy of a duly-elected president.
Maybe that explains why at least a few liberals are feeling a pang of remorse for the way they treated Joe Lieberman.