Politics & Policy

‘That Lieberman Tendency’

The Connecticut senator preserved the line of Democratic national-security hawks.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.) announces his retirement to cheers from the Left. “It’s the end of a nightmare,” Ralph Nader tells the Hartford Courant. “Good riddance, Joe Lieberman,” writes Emily Bazelon in Slate.

His constituents concur. Fifty-four percent of Nutmeggers disapprove of Lieberman’s performance: Democrats for his ideological apostasy, independents for his national aspirations, and Republicans for, well, his Democratic affiliation.

But Lieberman has earned conservatives’ respect — and rightly so — not for his “moderation” or “independence,” but for his courage and prudence.

#ad#Liberals’ pouting notwithstanding, Lieberman is a man of the Left. He voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion. He voted for Obamacare. He introduced a cap-and-trade bill.

But on one issue — one vital issue — Lieberman is conservative: national security. He backed the Iraq War, supported the surge, and, largely for those reasons, endorsed Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) for president in 2008. Consequently, some pundits extol Lieberman for his moderation. But “moderate” is “such a squishy term,” as Dan Gerstein, his former communications director, says. No, Lieberman deserves praise because he was courageous: When anti–Iraq War candidate Ned Lamont threatened to swipe the Democratic nomination in 2006 — a threat that ultimately became a reality — Lieberman stood his ground.

In their huffing and puffing over that betrayal, liberals have impugned Lieberman’s character. But people who worked with Lieberman remember him fondly. Former Republican congresswoman Nancy Johnson recalls serving in the state senate with Lieberman. At the time, she was a freshman Republican and he the Democratic majority leader. With an idea for a bill, Johnson, the newbie, asked the leader for his support. “I had no idea that a Democratic majority leader is not going to cosponsor a bill from a freshman Republican,” Johnson tells National Review Online. “[The Republicans] told me that” — but she went ahead.

To her surprise, Lieberman did cosponsor the bill, which established a program for troubled children to stay in their homes and receive counseling — rather than face ejection by the Department of Children and Families. “He was willing to do something very, very few people in elected office are willing to do and that’s to stand up and do what’s right,” Johnson concludes.

Bill Bennett agrees that Lieberman has shown more than a lame civility; he’s shown integrity. “I don’t agree with most of his votes,” Bennett tells NRO. “But I’m sorry to see him go. He’s an admirable character.”

Perhaps the choicest endorsement Lieberman received was that of William F. Buckley Jr. In 1988, Buckley formed BuckPAC, a tongue-in-cheek political action committee consisting of his extended family, which endorsed Lieberman against the incumbent liberal Republican senator Lowell Weicker. In one of his columns, Buckley explained his reasoning: “As for Joe Lieberman, he is a moderate Democrat, and it is always possible that he will progress in the right direction. There is no such hope for Lowell Weicker.”

Lieberman did not progress as much as conservatives might have hoped. But once he chose the right course on Iraq, he stuck to it. In doing so, he preserved “that Lieberman tendency, which is a continuance of the John F. Kennedy–Scoop Jackson tradition,” a Lieberman aide tells NRO. Let’s hope it doesn’t die out after him.

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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