A Political Maverick Moves On to Greater Questions

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WASHINGTON -- There was Joseph I. Lieberman, in the midst of his extended farewell tour of interviews, speeches and personal appearances ("This feels like the Last Waltz of the Band"), talking about how much people have hated him.

"I'm not saying I was always right," he said at his Senate office. "I'll leave that to God and history. But I believed I was doing what I thought was right and people didn't just disagree with me. There was hatred. But I'm not alone in that. You can take the last three presidents -- Clinton, Bush, Obama -- and people haven't just disagreed with them, they've hated them. And to me, that's really terrible. That's a cancer that's eating at our politics."

Like everything about Mr. Lieberman, the words and the context he chose to put them in will surely be taken various ways. Principled? Self-important? Wise? Deluded? But then Mr. Lieberman leaves the Senate a past master at playing by his own rules, with the praise and disdain that come with forging a career path like few, if any, in American politics -- reliable Democrat, outspoken moral voice, first Jewish vice-presidential candidate, disastrously failed presidential candidate, elected to the Senate as an independent after losing in his Democratic primary, on the short list of possible Republican vice-presidential candidates, independent Senate voice and power broker.

Now, as he prepares to leave the Senate after 24 years of representing Connecticut, Mr. Lieberman might find himself in the least likely position of all. His most unusual of careers has left him squarely in the middle of perhaps the central debate in American political life -- what is the proper role for bipartisanship and how can it best be achieved?

As he said in his farewell remarks to the Senate on Dec. 12, he is convinced that the greatest obstacle the nation faces in addressing its problems is "the partisan polarization of our politics which prevents us from making the principled compromises on which progress in a democracy depends and which right now prevents us from restoring our fiscal solvency as a nation."

To his defenders, who are as likely to be Republicans as Democrats, Mr. Lieberman has been a rare and admirable political figure who has risen above party in a polarized time.

"I think he leaves the Senate being respected by Republicans and Democrats," said Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who along with Senator John McCain, a Republican, became one of Mr. Lieberman's closest friends in the Senate. "I think the Republican Party and the Democratic Party need to do some self-evaluation if there's no place for Joe Lieberman in the Democratic Party and there's no place for some of our folks."

But Mr. Lieberman lost much of his Democratic support over his enthusiastic support of the Iraq War and then lost more of it over his support for Mr. McCain for president in 2008, his decision to speak at his Republican National Convention and his role in killing a public option in President Obama's health care bill.

And critics, including many former supporters in Connecticut, say Mr. Lieberman's form of bipartisanship has been in part pique because of his rejection by Democratic voters, in part egotistic grandstanding, in part a way to curry favor with Republicans and corporate interests.

"He found a way to disguise opportunism as high-mindedness, and as much as anyone is the architect of this myth of bipartisanship," said Bill Curry, a former unsuccessful candidate for Connecticut governor who served with Mr. Lieberman in the State Senate. "I question the idea you can find the vital center simply by splitting the difference between a Democratic Party that has lost its way and a Republican Party drowning in extremism."

Even amid the current meltdown in Washington and the consistent Republican opposition to Mr. Obama, he insists on what many Democrats see as a relentlessly bipartisan approach to bipartisanship that ignores reality.

"The Republicans will say not only in the fiscal negotiations, but in general, they were constantly bending and willing to compromise, and it's the Democrats fault," he said. "But the truth is, they're both right. It's both their fault."

Mr. Lieberman, 70, was elected to the Connecticut State Senate in 1970 and served there for 10 years, including the last six as majority leader. He then served as Connecticut attorney general from 1983 to 1988 before narrowly defeating Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1988, at least in part by picturing him as someone estranged from his party and too much of an independent actor.

"For 18 years, my opponent has gotten away with saying he's a maverick," Mr. Lieberman said in one of their debates. "Well, it's about time the people really understood what a maverick is. It means you're not ultimately accountable to anybody. You don't even have to make commitments, even to the voters you represent. You just do whatever suits you personally whenever you want to do it."

Since then, Mr. Lieberman has crafted an image as one of the most independent figures in the Senate, reliably liberal on some issues -- the environment in particular -- reliably hawkish on defense, and, critics say, an often contradictory party of one on others.

That position helped him create a national profile, first in 1998 when he excoriated President Bill Clinton's conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair, then when he ran for vice president in 2000, beginning what seemed to be a quadrennial soap opera.

Of the vice-presidential run, he says he is still disappointed but philosophical.

Of his presidential race in 2004, he said, his views on Iraq doomed his campaign: "It just wasn't meant to be," he said. "I was selling something the Democratic primary voters didn't want to buy."

Of his support for Mr. McCain in 2008, he says he does not regret speaking at the Republican convention but that he now feels he erred by criticizing Mr. Obama there. He said he would have accepted the vice-presidential nomination had Mr. McCain offered it but was glad the offer never came.

"It's just as well I was saved from the distinction in American history of having lost for vice president twice on two different tickets," he said.

Still, along with the critics in his party, there have been numerous expressions of respect both personal and professional. Democrats, in particular, praise his role in attracting enough Republican votes to ensure the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"We don't always agree on policy issues, but we do 90 percent of the time," Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, said on the floor. "Regardless of the few differences we have, I have never, ever doubted Joe Lieberman's principles or his patriotism."

Mr. Lieberman has been outspoken and sometimes confounding to the end: suddenly changing his position to endorse term limits as he leaves the Senate, calling for the abolition of the Electoral College, co-sponsoring a bill for statehood for the District of Columbia, cricitizing both the National Rifle Association and a violent video game and entertainment culture in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Mr. Lieberman said his biggest regret in the Senate was being unable to pass legislation to combat climate change. And, if many question whether he has the answers on bipartisanship, few in Congress doubt that he is at least asking the right questions.

"I will tell you that in the 24 years I've been here, the last two have been the most partisan, least compromising and therefore the least productive," he said.

He added: "We are in a race on big issues: the national debt, climate change and cyber security are three that come to mind. And the question is, are we going to have bipartisan agreements to make them into just problems before they actually become catastrophes?"

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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