Quick Thoughts on Joe Lieberman

by Reihan Salam

After Joe Lieberman successfully defended his Senate seat against netroots-backed insurgent candidate Ned Lamont, I strongly felt that he needed to reposition himself. As an early DLC Democrat and a liberal hawk with strong neoconservative sympathies, he had failed to adapt to the new left-of-center landscape. Many Lieberman supporters believed that his combination of hawkishness, social liberalism, and “pro-business” progressivism represented a stable compound. But it didn’t. Alienated from his fellow Democrats by increasingly sharp disagreement over the war, Lieberman drifted to the right in many respects, a move encapsulated by his opposition to a Medicare buy-in proposal that he only recently supported.

What Lieberman should have done in 2007, in my view, is complicate his political identity by embracing a number of causes strongly associated with netroots progressivism, ranging from net neutrality and copyright reform to same-sex marriage. At the same time, he could remain steadfast in support of the surge strategy, though he could leaven this support by placing heavier emphasis on foreign policy causes more closely identified with the left. Lieberman’s communications shop could have reached out to left-of-center outlets on issues like defending labor unions and women’s rights in the Middle East and Latin America, among other things. The issues I had in mind were niche issues, to be sure: relatively few actual voters care about net neutrality. Yet had the senator invested energy in bashing ISPs, wireless carriers, and other villains loathed by the tech-savvy set, he would have confused his enemies: “Lieberman is a war-mongering ogre! But … but … he’s read Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture! I’m so confused …” 

And had Lieberman strongly backed same-sex marriage, including perhaps DOMA repeal, he’d become a liberal folk hero despite his many other transgressions. To be sure, it’s possible that Lieberman really is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage on moral grounds, not unlike President Obama, or at least President Obama’s stated stance. I also have to assume that Lieberman was weighing the possibility of running as John McCain’s running mate, as it then seemed fairly likely that McCain would be the next Republican nominee. 

Now, however, Lieberman has become the Emmanuel Goldstein of the netroots left, and it is easy to see him losing to long-serving Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal or a gutsier liberal Democrat. Which is, in my view, a shame. But 2012 is a long way off. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.