Joe Lieberman announces the end of his complex political career

Sen. Joseph 'Joe' Lieberman will not seek re-election. His retirement makes life easier for Democrats, who now have a better chance of hanging onto his seat.

Craig Ruttle / AP
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, (I) of Conn., smiles as he announces that he has decided to retire and not seek a fifth term, Jan. 19 in Stamford, Conn. From left are Lieberman's wife, Hadassah, granddaughter Maddy Wisse, and daughters Rebecca Lieberman-Wisse and Tennessee Lieberman.

The decision by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut not to run for reelection in 2012 marks the beginning of the end of a storied political career.

After all, how many politicians were their party’s vice-presidential nominee, and then made the short list for the opposing party’s vice-presidential selection just eight years later?

That, in a nutshell, captures the complexity of four-term Senator Lieberman, who spent most of his career as a centrist Democrat, then in recent years grew alienated from his party. He ended up in the political netherworld of an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, but only votes with them on some issues. He is a fierce defender of the US wars abroad, and last month, just as fiercely led the charge to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gays from open military service.

In his retirement announcement, delivered Wednesday in a hotel room in his birthplace of Stamford, Conn., Lieberman said his reason is “best expressed in the wise words from Ecclesiastes: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven.’"

He acknowledged that he hasn’t always fit into “conventional political boxes," but said that wasn't the most important aspect of public service.

"I have always thought that my first responsibility is not to serve a political party but to serve my constituents, my state, and my country, and then to work across party lines to make sure good things get done for them," Lieberman said. “Whatever the partisan or policy differences that divide us, they are much less important than the shared values and dreams that unite us and that require us to work together to make progress for all. To me, that is what public service and leadership is all about.”

By opting out of a reelection bid, Lieberman makes life easier for the Democrats. Had he run again, it probably would have been as an independent. But with, in effect, two Democrats (Lieberman and the Democratic nominee) running in a three-way race, the Republicans could have won with a plurality. In a two-way race, the Democratic nominee will enjoy an edge in liberal-leaning Connecticut.

In his last election, in 2006, Lieberman’s strong support for the Iraq War cost him the Democratic nomination, won by anti-war businessman Ned Lamont. The Republicans fielded a weak candidate, Alan Schlesinger, allowing Lieberman to build a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents that propelled him to victory.

But Lieberman would never be the same. Just six years earlier, he was Al Gore’s running mate on the 2000 Democratic ticket. In 2004, Lieberman ran for president himself, but by then, his centrist politics – especially his support for the Iraq War – didn’t fit the Democratic electorate, and his candidacy didn’t go far.

“He was always very much a social liberal,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist, noting Lieberman’s civil rights activism in the 1960s. “And he was not a hard cold-warrior who didn’t want to see negotiations on arms control with the Russians. Iraq was for him a huge turning point.”

Lieberman’s 2006 loss to Mr. Lamont affected him deeply, as he saw the Democratic Party abandon him and support its nominee.

“He was really angry when he had to defend himself against someone he didn’t feel was a serious candidate,” says Mr. Fenn. “It hurt him personally, then he took that out on the party, and on others, and of course when he was reelected it emboldened him a bit.”

Lieberman’s close friendship with Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, another strong defender of President Bush’s Iraq policy, added further strain to his relationship with the Democratic Party – especially when Senator McCain won the Republican nomination for president in 2008. In a way, Lieberman sealed his political fate when he endorsed McCain against Barack Obama, campaigned for McCain, and addressed the Republican convention that summer.

By many accounts, McCain wanted to make Lieberman his running mate, but was talked out of it by allies who felt Lieberman’s liberal social views would alienate conservatives. McCain went on to select then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Lieberman has described life as a political independent as liberating – and even helped convince former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist that leaving the Republican Party and running for the Senate as an independent was the way to go when it became clear Mr. Crist was going to lose in the GOP primary. “He was right,” Crist said last May. “I'm much happier now, to be perfectly candid."

For the past four years, Lieberman has counted as a Democrat for the purposes of committee assignments and leadership votes, but often left the Democrats guessing how he would vote. The possibility that Lieberman might become a Republican was never far from Democrats’ minds, but on domestic policy, in particular, Lieberman was often a reliable Democratic vote. On health care reform, he adamantly opposed the government-run health insurance proposal called the public option, but after that idea fell away, Lieberman was a loyal supporter of reform.

Ultimately, though, Lieberman’s inconsistent voting record on matters important to mainstream Democrats, plus his endorsement of McCain, would have made it extremely difficult for him to win a Democratic primary in Connecticut next year. There were even suggestions that Lieberman might consider running for reelection as a Republican, though people close to him say that was never an option.

For his final two years in office, Lieberman said, “I will keep doing everything I can to keep our economy growing and get our national debt under control, to combat climate change, to end our dependency on foreign oil, and to reform our immigration laws.”

Once out of office, Lieberman says he intends to remain active in public service. As an observant Orthodox Jew and strong supporter of Israel, Lieberman may opt to remain active in Middle East policy.

Before his announcement, the race for his seat was already in gear. On Tuesday, former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz (D) announced her candidacy. Two Democrats in Connecticut’s congressional delegation, Reps. Christopher Murphy and Joseph Courtney, are also reportedly considering running.

On the Republican side, former TV wrestling executive Linda McMahon has suggested a possible run, after losing last November to now-Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D). Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) also reportedly may run.

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