In spring 2008, John McCain asked Joe Lieberman to speak on his behalf at the Republican National Convention. If I look back, I wonder about it, Lieberman now says. But it seemed the natural way to help the man he deemed most qualified to be president.
After Barack Obama won the election, the hammer came down. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, told Lieberman that some Democrats wanted to strip him of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. Lieberman, an independent, said if that happened then he might not be able to vote with the Democratic caucus.
The decisive meeting occurred during the transition period. President Obama opposed punishing Lieberman, as did Sens. Reid, Schumer, Durbin, Dodd and Salazar. The entire caucus held a debate about Liebermans future with Lieberman right there in the room. It wasnt ad hominem, Lieberman recalled. Some people said, We like you Joe. We just cant accept this behavior.
In the end, it wasnt even close. Forty-two Democratic senators voted to let Lieberman keep his chairmanship. Thirteen voted against.
As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post noted recently, this turned out to be one of the most consequential decisions Obama and Reid made. If Lieberman had not been welcomed back by the Democrats, there might not have been a 60th vote for health care reform, and it would have failed.
There certainly would have been no victory for dont ask, dont tell repeal without Liebermans tireless work and hawkish credentials. The Kerry-Lieberman climate bill came closer to passage than any other energy bill. Lieberman also provided crucial support or a swing vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the stimulus bill, the banking bill, the unemployment extension and several other measures.
So while Lieberman is loathed by many liberal activists, he has always had much better relations with Democratic practitioners.
Vice President Joe Biden sent me a heartfelt e-mail on Thursday that ended: The Senate will not be the same without Joes leadership and powerful intellect. But it is his civility that will be missed the most.
He was an integral part of the Democratic caucus, Reid also wrote in an e-mail, and his dedication to public service, ability to work across the aisle and broad range of experience will be missed.
Joe has been a terrific senator, John Kerry said. Hes defined himself by his conscience and beliefs.
Kerry acknowledged that he has often been exasperated by Lieberman, but working relationships are more meaningful, Kerry continued, because of, not despite, fierce disagreements on other issues.
These policymakers are judging Lieberman by the criteria Max Weber called the ethic of responsibility who will produce the best consequences. Some of the activists are judging him by what Weber called an ethic of intention who has the purest and most uncompromising heart.
Theres a theory going around that Lieberman was embittered by the trauma of 2006 when Democratic primary voters in Connecticut defeated him because of his support for the Iraq War. Theres little evidence to validate this. Lieberman has always sat crossways between the two parties and has often served as a convenient bridge, infuriating Democrats, but then serving the partys interests at important moments.
Lieberman votes with the Democrats 90 percent of the time, but he has always been a Scoop Jackson Democrat who early on broke with his party on defense issues. In the 1990s, he challenged party orthodoxy on school choice, entitlement reform and the place of religion in public life.
But precisely because of these independent or hawkish credentials, hes been able to leap in at critical moments and deliver for the party in a way no other senator could. Long before there was an Obamacare debate or the dont ask, dont tell repeal, Lieberman played an important role in saving Bill Clinton from impeachment. As momentum for impeachment was growing, Lieberman gave a crucial speech on the Senate floor that scolded Clinton for his behavior but resolutely opposed removing him from office.
As several senior people in the Clinton White House understood immediately, Liebermans speech popped the boil giving people a way to register anger, without calling for Clintons removal.
The question is whether politicians with Liebermans moderate and independent profile can survive in the current political climate. I have more warm relationships with Democrats in Washington than in Connecticut, Lieberman acknowledges.
It would be nice if voters made room for a few independents like this. There have been times, like during the health care debate, when I found Liebermans independence befuddling and detached from any evident intellectual moorings. But, in general, he has shown a courageous independence of mind.
There are plenty of team players in government who do whatever the leader says. There are too few difficult members, who have complicated minds, unusual perspectives, the toughness to withstand the party-line barrages and a practical interest in producing results.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly.