Lieberman: 4 Terms Are Enough

Joe Lieberman's decision to retire after 2012 signals that centrist politicians are an endangered species.

Dr. Amiel Ungar, | updated: 01:14

Senator Joe Lieberman
Senator Joe Lieberman


The announcement by Senator Joseph Lieberman that he will not seek a 5th term in 2012 elicited divergent comments about the man who nearly became vice president running on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore in the controversial 2000 presidential election. The political left celebrated  and the Daily Kos' Markos Moulitsas  actually exulted that "America and Connecticut will soon be rid of this useless sack of crap."

The left did not forgive Lieberman for his strong backing of the war in Iraq and for being a throwback to the Democratic senators of the 1960s and 1970s who combined a liberal approach in domestic politics, particularly on civil rights issues, with the demand for a strong defense posture and an interventionist foreign policy. These forces nearly succeeded in getting rid of Lieberman in the 2006 elections when he was beaten in the Democratic primaries by Ned Lamont, but Lieberman recouped his fortunes by running as an independent, picking up votes from both Republicans and Democrats. Lieberman retaliated against the Democrats by backing Republican John McCain in the 2008 elections against Barack Obama.

Lieberman, however, is well appreciated in the Senate as someone who could reach out to both sides. During the filibuster debate over Bush appointments to the judiciary, Lieberman was one of the leaders of a centrist bloc of senators from both parties who tried to forge a compromise. In recognition of his long and distinguished service in the Senate, the victorious Democrats did not punish him for his support of McCain, and he continued to head the Homeland Security Committee in the Senate focusing on "homegrown terrorism".

Lieberman's critics scoff at his protestations that 24 years in the Senate were enough and claimed that the polls that at best give him 34% popularity amongst Connecticut voters dissuaded him from making another try. 

Lieberman, however, is known as someone who does not shrink from a fight. What the polls do show, however, is that the Lieberman model of an independent senator who does not follow a strict party line is becoming an endangered species in American politics.

While the 2006 elections showed that voters in a general election could still appreciate this type of politician; such a posture now means political suicide in a primary race. Primaries are dominated by committed partisan voters and they tend to vote with their ideologies. A more liberal Democrat and a more conservative Republican start out with a tremendous advantage; a man in the middle must work hard to catch up.

Lieberman was able to overcome this liability in 2006 because the Republican candidate was a nonentity and the Republicans from George W. Bush on down tacitly backed Lieberman. There is no chance that this would recur in today's climate. A final change that has occurred is that incumbency, once considered a major asset, was proven in the last election cycle to be an albatross.