By Anthony Cruz and Gabe Delaney
Senator Joseph Lieberman is a former U.S. Senator from Connecticut and served as the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 2000 election with running mate Al Gore. Despite winning the popular vote, the Democratic ticket lost the election after a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Lieberman continued to serve in the Senate, ending a 24-year term in 2012 and a six-year chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
What was your greatest accomplishment in the U.S. Senate?
There was a time when the Senate was still accomplishing things, and that hasn’t been happening lately. It’s hard to pick one out. I am very proud of the work that I did in the post-9/11 period to reorganize our government to protect our people better from the new threat of terrorism. I was one of the original cosponsors of the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security. John McCain and I cosponsored the legislation creating the 9/11 Commission that worked very hard to adopt its recommendations that reformed our intelligence agencies. It was the biggest transformation of America’s security apparatus since the late 1940s when the Cold War began, which was appropriate since we were trying to figure out how to meet a new enemy.
I did a lot of other things I was proud of. I did a lot of environmental work on the Clean Air Act. The effort to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which was successful, was really something I feel great about.
How did your religion influence your career in the Senate? How did it influence the 2000 election?
My religion has really for most of life been important. I say most of my life because in college, I stopped some of the observance, but I came back to it. As I briefly alluded to earlier, the lessons that I learned from my rabbis and from my parents about how we got here and what we are supposed todonow.Alotofitendedupintheidea of service. So that, along with very different lessons from history, Kennedy’s inspiration, all came together.
My religion had an important role in my decision to go into politics. In 2000, Al Gore gave me an unprecedented opportunity so it was obvious he was breaking a barrier when he chose me [as his running mate] — not only that was he choosing somebody Jewish, but somebody who was an observant Jew — sort of out there! I thought the American people responded really not just with tolerance but with acceptance.
Politics in a lot of ways is like sports, because it does get down to numbers. The remarkable thing you say about America in 2008 — and it continued in 2008 with
Obama’s victory — is the absence of bias. To put it directly, Gore and I got a half million more votes than [George W.] Bush and [Dick] Cheney. I don’t say that to reargue the election results but just to say that a ticket on which there was a Jewish American was truly winnable.
As Al Gore’s running mate during the 2000 presidential election, what was it like to be in the center of the recount controversy?
That was a very odd and difficult time. Al Gore oversaw a very intense vetting process of vice presidential possibilities. I was picked up as a result of that process. Picked up and put on this going train, which was the campaign. It was the most demanding part of my professional life that I’ve ever had. Thank God I had my Sabbath observance, because you could at least stop and reflect. The typical day, you go to two, three, four states up 18-20 hours a day. You are constantly on, and then it suddenly stopped on Election Day. But then it didn’t fully stop, so we went back to Washington, and the lawyers, and to some extent the political activists in Florida, took over.
It was a very strange time. We were watching, and we were meeting to talk to some [people] — if this worked out in our favor, who would be appointed to what, things like that. Sometimes, Al, Tipper [Gore], my wife, and I would go out to dinner or lunch, and it would be a media event, because the whole world was focused on it.
What can I say? When it ended the way it did, it was very frustrating, very disappointing and infuriating. I was lucky that I still was in the Senate. By nature, I went right back. The Senate happened to still be in session even though it was December. Believe it or not, there was a budget crisis, so I went right back in. But it was quite an experience.
I’ll tell you a little story. When I got to my office, the first call [I received] — my secretary called me and said Senator [Bob] Dole is on the phone. He said, “Joe, I called to congratulate you.” I said, “For what?” He said, “Well, you have become a member of a very exclusive club of people who have lost national elections, and I am the president of that club, because I lost more than anybody else.” It was just the nicest call you could ask for. Just a good guy!
Your endorsement of Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election was controversial. How did you rebound from the criticism, particularly from the Democratic side?
McCain was my friend. I had just gone through this really unusual reelection in 2006, where the party denied me nomination. I ran as an independent. So I really was free. I stayed in the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, because I needed to do that to keep my seniority.
It was interesting. There was no question that there were hard feelings among Democrats in Connecticut. Part of it was McCain’s selection of [Sarah] Palin, because McCain had been for most of his career, the kind of Republican that people in Connecticut like — an independent, a maverick. When he chose Palin, it felt like he had become more conservative, and people in Connecticut were unhappy about that and that I was affiliated with him.
But time heals all wounds. With Democrats in the Senate, it was very interesting. There was actually a movement, by some Democrats, to essentially deny me my seniority based on the fact that I supported McCain. Senator [Harry] Reid, two days after the election, talked to me about it. But he stuck with me.
It was a fascinating experience. I don’t know the last time it happened. It hasn’t happened during my time in the Senate. The caucus actually entertained a motion to strip me of my seniority and that would have meant I wouldn’t have been Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. I told Senator Reid that if it happened, I would leave the caucus. The leadership — Harry, [Chuck] Schumer, [Dick] Durbin — stuck with me. I won that vote 42-13, and we kind of went back to normal. Every now and then, Reid would say to the Democratic Caucus “I know some of you thought we should kick Joe Lieberman out after he supported McCain, but we wouldn’t have been able to pass this if he wasn’t here and pass that if he weren’t here.”
My relations with my Democratic colleagues in the Senate became very good and went back to where they were before McCain. My relations with the Connecticut Democratic Party never got back to where they were, although they did with individual Democrats, Democratic mayors, certainly my colleague Senator Chris Dodd, and my other colleague Senator Dick Blumenthal. They were fine. But it was unusual.
We are in a greatly partisan time, and the idea that I would support somebody from the other party, notwithstanding the fact they knew we were very close friends. Incidentally, I was still a persona non grata in the Democratic Party because of my position on the Iraq War. Neither Senator [Barack] Obama nor Senator [Hillary] Clinton were asking for my support.
Is Congress broken? Is there any chance of reduced political polarization? Are Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul threats to the institutions in Washington?
I am worried about it. I can tell you that I loved my 24 years in the Senate. I felt very lucky every day that I was there. I felt proud of the things that I was able to do. The last two years of the 24 were the most polarized and therefore the least instructive and productive of the whole time. That’s not why I didn’t run again, but it made it a lot easier not to run again.
People ask me periodically, “Do you ever miss being in the Senate?” Do you know how many times this year that the crisis in Syria or something like that [has led me to] wish that I had been there? This week [of the government shutdown], though, I don’t. Not only is it a mess, but in all honesty, if I felt that I could make a difference, I’d miss it. But it’s so polarized I don’t believe I could. I don’t know how you break it.
There is a dynamic that’s going on. There are a lot of good people who come to Congress for good reasons. They get there, and they are pulled apart by their parties, by interest groups, by ideological groups. People have lost the ability to compromise. You never should compromise your principles. But if you go into a lot of issues and say, “I have to get a 100% of what I want or I am not voting for it,” then you probably are going to get 0%. By the nature of the system, you have to compromise.
It’s hurting the country. We are not solving problems. I can tell you, because I have spent a lot of time on foreign policy, that a lot of people around the world who depend on our strength and credibility are worried about us. They don’t think we have the strength to lead. But they are also now worried about our competence as a government, as a nation. I am not sure how you break out of it.
Ultimately, it’s up to the people to rise up and send people to Congress who want to work together. But to be honest, if you look at last year’s election, with all of the anger at the politicians and incumbents, I [thought], “Wow, maybe this is the year when they are going to vote against incumbents and going to send a message.” But what happened? The House and the Senate stayed Republican and Democratic, [respectively]. The President got reelected by a lot. I know each and every race has unique things about it. But the unproductive status quo was continued.
I’m afraid that’s going to send a message to the people in Congress that even though they are generally unpopular, somehow they are reelected. But this has to stop. I know that the President hopes the House will go Democratic so that during his last two years, a Democratic Congress can get things done, but I wouldn’t count on it.
What are your views on the conflict in Syria and the threat of Iran? Do you believe that the deal regarding the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons is the right one? Are you more optimistic now with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in power?
This is a long story. I think the Arab Spring uprisings have been really remarkable. They are difficult because they don’t go up a straight line. In some ways, it’s the best reaction/rejection against Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism. They have been led for people that just want a better life, more freedom, and more economic opportunity. Unfortunately, in some of the countries, like Egypt, people have turned toward the Muslim Brotherhood, but the people rejected them. That’s the first striving toward a democratic future.
That’s the way I view what happened in Syria when people started the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. I went over there with McCain earlier on, and I thought [the opposition] was very impressive. They were in some sense disorganized, but they really were freedom fighters. They were not Islamic extremists. They were nationalists and patriots. But we hung back too long, and we allowed the opposition to suffer and Assad to kill a lot of them.
Now, a lot Islamic extremists are in there from outside of the country. So all along, particularly as a world leader, [the U.S.] has disappointed the opposition to Assad. I am very critical of how the President has handled this. He drew the red line — I wish had had done more — but he drew the red line on chemical weapons. Assad obviously used chemical weapons. And then he comes out and announces that he has the authority to take military action to punish themforusingchemicalweapons,butheis going to go to Congress. He had to know that his chances were at best 50/50. He was in real trouble. By the time they were headed toward the vote, it was going away from him.
Then, the Russians came up with this idea. It would be great if the Syrians really do get rid of their chemical weapons. But there are two problems that make me really skeptical. One, the Syrians’ record for keeping their word is bad. I am still finding hard to believe that Putin and the Russians wish us well. They are playing a game here. Two, even if they get rid of their chemical weapons, which would be great, Assad is still there. People are still getting killed.
More generally, it sends a message of uncertainty at the helm of America. That not only agitates Israel and our Arab allies but also allies of ours in Asia. I have talked to Japanese and South Koreans, and they are very nervous.
Rouhani — here, too, I am skeptical, based on the record of this Iranian government. But the consequences of a failure here are so great that I think it is worth aggressively exploring the Iranians’ true intentions. I wouldn’t turn away from this. It’s worth trying to focus on what they are prepared to do. They appear to be suffering from the economic sanctions. I know they are suffering from the economic sanctions. Whatisnewisthatthegovernmentactually seems to be reacting to that. I think we have to test them. Ultimately, unless we keep the economic pressure on, and they really believe that if we don’t come to an agreement, we’ll take military action, or the Israelis will do so to disable their nuclear program, there is no chance of a peaceful resolution.