Joe Lieberman Tells TWN: Centrists Are the Key to Getting Government Working Again
WELL VERSED | Book Review
WASHINGTON — In a divisive age in which it seems lawmakers will run faster from a deal than they would from a burning building, it’s nice, occasionally, to hear an elder statesman talk about the government’s ability to get things done.
Such was the case when The Well News caught up with former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who represented Connecticut as a “hyphenated” Democrat from 1989 to 2013.
We use the word “hyphenated” to acknowledge the attorney and Yale University graduate’s entry into politics as a “reform” Democrat, running for and winning a seat in the Connecticut Senate, where he’d eventually serve three terms as Majority Leader, and to the arc that eventually saw him declaring himself an “independent Democrat” in his last term in the U.S. Senate.
In between, he served as Connecticut’s attorney general, and after narrowly defeating Republican incumbent Lowell Weicker in 1988, became a U.S. Senator, eventually being re-elected three more times.
And amidst all this, he also happened to run as then-Vice President Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, becoming the first Jewish candidate on a major American political party’s presidential ticket.
What made Lieberman a fascinating — and to some, frustrating — character during his public career was his determination to go his own way when he felt it was the right thing to do.
For instance, there’s his Senate re-election bid in 2006. Following the defeat of the Gore/Leiberman ticket in 2000, the senator sought, but did not get, the Democratic nomination in 2004.
Lieberman’s seeming downward spiral continued into early 2006, when he lost Connecticut’s Democratic primary for the Senate. Where most might have quit, the senator doubled down and ran as a third-party candidate under the “Connecticut for Lieberman” banner.
Though the move raised eyebrows, success heals most wounds, and Lieberman remained a Democrat throughout the campaign and into his next term.
Then came the shocker of all shockers to his fellow Democrats — Lieberman’s speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention in which he endorsed his friend John McCain for president.
Establishment Democrats were horrified, and Leiberman was no longer welcome at Democratic Caucus strategy meetings or policy lunches.
Ultimately, Lieberman’s future in the party came down to a meeting with then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. That session ended with Leiberman still having a role in the Democratic Party, and the Senate Democratic Caucus later voted to allow him to keep the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Lieberman would continue to caucus with the Democrats through the end of his career, and in his final term he was a key champion for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and a key opponent of the inclusion of the so-called “public option” in the Affordable Care Act.
Needing his crucial 60th vote to overcome a possible filibuster, Lieberman’s opposition would prove critical to its removal from the final bill.
All this, of course, was history to the 79-year-old on Monday when he settled down to talk to The Well News about his new book, “The Centrist Solution: How We Made Government Work and Can Make It Work Again.”
But it was also salient history. The book, though built on the stuff of memoir, is actually a 304-page argument in favor of a politics built upon the premise that cooperation across party lines is not just the right thing to do but the only approach that will get anything meaningful done in Washington, D.C.
As the blurb on Amazon says, “Senator Joseph Lieberman offers a master class in effective government by probing his forty years in elective office―from the Vietnam War era to the Presidency of Barack Obama―and by shining a light on historic acts of centrism and compromise, extracting productive and problem-solving lessons and techniques we need now more than ever.”
TWN: Sen. Lieberman, it’s great to speak with you and thanks for doing this. It seems like it’s been a little while since we’ve heard from you. I’m sure there are many people who think it’s been too long.
JL: Well, I appreciate your saying that. Thank you. I mean, I feel good about having been able to write this book. And I hope it’s relevant. I hope it helps people in Congress, in particular, and in the White House, in that it’s message is they can get a lot done and solve a lot of our problems, if they come to the center.
TWN: As a journalist I see a lot of terms used interchangeably, and it sometimes causes you to pause and think, “Am I labeling this correctly?” So, let me ask you this: Do you draw a distinction between what you refer to as a centrist and what you might describe as a moderate? Are the two different things? Are they the same thing?
JL: No, they’re not. And I’m really glad you asked that question. A lot of moderates are centrists, but being a centrist is different from being a moderate and that’s the whole point of the “Centrist Solution.”
A centrist is a moderate, a liberal, a conservative, a Republican or Democrat or Independent who is willing to come to the center on a given issue, to discuss it with people who have different points of view, and then looks to see if they can find common ground to get something done.
During my time in the Senate I would say Sen. Ted Kennedy was obviously a liberal Democrat, but he could be a really effective centrist when he wanted to be because he came to the center and negotiated with people who were a lot more conservative than he was — Orrin Hatch, Mike Enzi, Judd Gregg — all of them Republicans, all of them conservatives, and together they were able to get a lot done.
None of them got 100% of what they wanted. But they got something. They got at least 50% for each side and they got something good for their country and their constituents.
John McCain was a conservative Republican, but he could be a great centrist when he wanted. And so that’s the point of the book. It’s different. Being a centrist is different from being a moderate. And it’s really what the country needs right now.
TWN: I’m intrigued by this notion of choosing to be a centrist when the situation warrants it. When this happens, is it a case of someone utilizing a certain set of tools or mechanisms when they want to play a centrist role in a debate?
JL: That’s a great question. And in all the interviews I have done about the new book, nobody has asked me that question. In a way, with this book, I’m trying to sketch up the rules for being a centrist, based on my experience and the experiences I had in my over 23 years in the U.S. Senate.
During those years I worked with people from both parties who had different points of view than I did on a variety of issues: environmental, national security, balanced budget, human rights … and got something done.
So that’s the key to the book, and at the end of every chapter, I offer lessons for people who want to be centrist and how to go about it.
For instance, I’d say the first thing you need to do is to be willing to enter into a dialogue. You’ve got to be willing to come back from where so many people in Washington are today, where they just stay on their partisan side of the fence and throw verbal bombs at those on the other side.
And of course, the same treatment is returned from the other side.
And you’re never going to get anything done like that.
Incidentally, when you come to the center, it helps to be civil and respectful of one another. I mean, it’s just human nature. You’re going to be more open to entering into an open conversation with somebody who is not insulting you than you are with someone who is insulting you.
And then you’ve got to be willing to negotiate and compromise. And I don’t mean compromise your ethics or your values, your moral values.
What I really mean is you have got to be willing to prioritize and decide “What’s most important to me on this bill.” And then you see whether you can reach some kind of common ground agreement with people on the other side, with people in the party or of a different ideology, to get it done.
Because on any given bill, you are never going to get everything you want. Our country is too big for that to happen. Our democracy is too big for that to happen. There are too many opinions out there on a given topic for you to get every single thing you want.
But coming to the center and getting important things done is something that has happened over and over again in our history. Now, I realize we are in a different policy era than when I served, but in the four or five situations I describe in the book meaningful things were achieved because people followed the steps I just talked about.
There is no puzzle. It’s no mystery. It’s not even very hard. Except it can be hard politically. You have got to have the courage — in this time, which is very partisan — to break away from the party line if you don’t agree with it and understand that the people at home elected you so you could get something done, not to have a big fight with the other party.
TWN: Let’s talk about this partisan era. First, why do you think Republicans, particularly those in the House, are still so incredibly loyal to former President Trump?
JL: Yeah, good question. Why are the Republicans still so loyal to former President Trump? I think it’s an example which magnifies one of the underlying problems in our political system today, which is that people in office are really often more worried about whether than can survive their party’s primary to get renominated, and therefore have a chance to be reelected, than they are about surviving the general election.
Part of the reason is the so-called gerrymandering that causes most House districts, certainly, to tip to one party or the other.
The political scientists will tell you that in any given election year, out of 435 members of Congress, maybe 50, at most, seats are actually up and competitive in November. The big deal is winning the primary.
So the Republicans, I think, are concerned as they look at the numbers. President Trump still has a lot of support among registered Republicans, and particularly among those who come out in primaries.
So I think, unfortunately, they are somewhat intimidated, just as the Democrats are often intimidated by the left wing of the Democratic Party, which does have a disproportionate influence because they come out more often in Democratic primaries.
And the answer to that is for candidates to be what they want to be and say what they want to say, to just stand for what they believe in rather than be intimidated.
And that probably means working hard in a primary to get people who are not on either wing of both parties to come out and renominate them so they can be reelected.
In our democracy, it’s always the voters who decide the outcome of an election. So if a candidate believes too many people on the far right or the far left are coming out in the primaries, it’s up to them to get the other people to come out … so they can do what they believe is right for our country.
TWN: Okay, in the spirit of fairness. Let’s look at the Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said in regard to the reconciliation bill and other legislation, “The Democrats are not interested in bipartisanship.” “The Democrats are not talking to us.” So, are the Democrats as guilty of not talking to the Republicans as the Republicans are of not talking to them?
JL: Well, I think each party is facing a different but equal threat. I mean, clearly, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and even within it — even further to the left — you have the so-called “Squad,” which has very intense and ideologically left attitudes which I don’t think reflect the mainstream of American thinking or popular thinking.
But they’re intensely passionate. And they’re well organized. And they say things that are provocative that the media covers. So Democrats sometimes seem as intimidated by the political left — even if they’re not left — as Republicans are of President Trump, and neither one is justifiable.
It seems to me your obligation, when you’re lucky enough to get elected, is to do what you think is right for the country and your constituents. And not to feel that your biggest goal is to get renominated and reelected. Your biggest goal is to get something done for your country and state that was good enough to send you to Washington.
What we have now is each party in a state of flux and really struggling to reflect the mainstream of American political thinking. And right now, neither of them is clearly doing it.
I mean, let me just say very briefly that in some way President Trump was elected in 2016 because people were so fed up and disappointed and angry at the status quo in their government and in Washington.
And they thought, “You know, we’re taking a gamble with Donald Trump, but he’s a successful businessman. He’s not a career politician. Maybe he’ll make it better.” They didn’t want to have somebody like Hillary Clinton, who at that point, to a lot of them, represented the status quo.
Now, for a lot of the people who voted for Trump, he didn’t do exactly what they hoped he would do … But for a lot of the moderates who voted for him — and this is based on exit polling I’ve read — they were troubled by the way Trump carried himself, by the way he tweeted certain things, by the divisiveness and all the rest.
So they voted for Joe Biden because they viewed him as a guy who had worked across party lines in the Senate and would unify the country, and as a guy who would not engage in the tweeting, and the negative divisive rhetoric that Trump did.
But now the challenge for Joe Biden isn’t crossing party lines, it’s really trying to work with the various wings of the Democratic party and unite them, and then, hopefully, to be able to convince some Republicans to work with them.
They did it on the so-called bipartisan infrastructure bill. You got Republicans and Democrats together on that one. Then they move on to the bigger reconciliation bill, and no Republicans are supporting it. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s where it is.
We always used to say it takes two to tango, well it takes two — the two parties — to break the partisan gridlock in Washington. And until we get to that point, we still have a lot of work to do.
TWN: But, isn’t it legitimately harder to support the reconciliation bill. At least the original, $3.5 trillion version, after all the money that was spent in response to COVID? There are a lot of fiscal hawks in this town that say, “Yes, in an ideal world, fix everything, but in this world, this is a lot of money we’re talking about.”
JL: I agree. I think that is part of it. But at the same time, look at the bipartisan infrastructure bill. There was money for work on traditional roads and bridges, on mass transit, it had some pretty good stuff in there to deal with climate change. And you got 19 Republicans in the Senate, including Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, to vote for it. That was great.
And I think in the end what happened was, despite the $1.2 trillion price tag, they thought it was a good investment in America’s future and that it probably would return great economic dividends.
Right now our national debt is closing in on $28 trillion. Wow. Imagine how much our kids will have to pay in taxes to pay the interest on that debt. And it’s just not fair to the generations that will follow us.
TWN: Are you surprised, at all, about the way people have been lashing out at Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.?
JL: I guess I’m not surprised because I took some of that on the occasions when I didn’t walk the Democratic Party line, but I really went to the Senate and tried to get something done.
Now, I know Joe Manchin better than I know Sinema. Manchin is a strong person. And while nobody likes to be called a traitor, he’ll hang in there and do what he thinks is right.
It’s really a terrible mistake to disparage people the way they’ve been disparaged. It’s not only disrespectful, it’s just the wrong way to treat somebody you are working with in politics or any other kind of work. Personal attacks may make the attacker feel good — and they may even get some people to agree with them and stand up and cheer when they make these abusive comments — but they don’t do anything to get anything good done for the country because they upset people on the other side, particularly those who are being attacked.
A lesson I learned from my folks, and one that was reiterated to me by politicians in Connecticut when I first got involved in politics was, “Politics is sport. You lose one day, the next day is a whole new ballgame.” I’ve never forgotten that. “You lose, you just get ready for the next ballgame and forget about what happened yesterday.”
And the reason having that attitude is so important is because the people who are on the field for the next game are pretty much going to be the people on the field the last game. And remember, politics is about issues, big problems and big ideas.
Looked at another way, it’s really about whether people who are working together can do so effectively and figure out how to get their jobs done, whether you are in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Congress, or the White House.
That’s what should be happening, instead of just screaming at each other, which, if anybody did that in a factory or an office, they would be fired because they weren’t doing their job.
TWN: So let’s bring this back around to your book. It seems like what we saw with the bipartisan infrastructure bill was kind of what we’re seeing you advocate for in the Centrist Solution.
People came together, found common ground, and then brought it home to roost. In the meantime, the spirit that made that happen was lost. How do you get it back?
JL: In the last chapter of the book I write about an organization called No Label, which I didn’t found, but for which I’ve been a national co-chair since August 2014. And really, the aim of the organization is to elect more centrist Republicans and Democrats to Congress, and then to support them with ideas, with policy, with campaign contributions to help them get elected and then to help them stay in Congress if they get punished by their party or an interest or ideological group because they actually sat down and worked with people in the other party.
This bipartisan infrastructure bill really emerged from that process. I’m really proud to say we have a 58-member, No Labels House Problem Solvers Caucus, composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.
And we had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate come together and really developed this infrastructure bill in a bipartisan fashion, the result being a good bill.
And on top of that, when they announced they had a deal, they, meaning both the Republicans and Democrats, were invited to the White House. That’s the kind of thing that just has to happen.
Of course, in the end, they did change the bill a bit, but President Biden still supported it and the Senate passed it with nine Republicans supporting it. I mean, it was thrilling. It was an example of what is so rare in these times.
Then the bill went to the House and unfortunately, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party blocked it until they could get together on the bigger, $2.5 trillion reconciliation bill. And, you know Speaker Pelosi felt she had to go along with them, which was unfortunate.
That said, I think there’s a break coming based on President Biden working with Sens. Manchin and Sinema. I’m hopeful that you’re going to see the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed, and then a much less expensive version of the other bill passed.
But to me, the work on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and how members of both parties and both chambers of Congress came together can teach a lot to everybody about how to make the system work again.
TWN: Since you mentioned the No Labels effort. What about the midterms? Do you have a bunch of candidates that you plan to back in the midterms? And if so, how do you think the centrists will do?
JL: This next election is going to determine a lot about what happens in terms of the things we’ve been talking about. So No Labels is really getting ready for it.
One thing we will do is back centrist Republicans and centrist Democrats in the primaries and general elections, financially.
And if there are centrists, as judged by their records or statements, who are challenging people who have been divisive and extreme, we will try to help them as well.
This is an interesting election, this one coming up in 2022, because as you know, the out-party — the party that is not the same as the incumbent president — usually wins.
So barring changes, Republicans would have to be favored in the House and maybe in the Senate. The thing that’s so troubling to me about the so-called progressive wing of the House Democratic Caucus is they are holding up things like the infrastructure vote, without regard to the fact that a lot of centrist Democrats were elected to the House in 2020 and that without them, there would be no Democratic majority in the House. Without the centrists, Nancy Pelosi would not now be speaker.
Now, a lot of Democrats will tell you 2022 is an uphill fight because that’s just how it is in a mid-term election, but if they don’t do something to protect those centrist Democrats who got elected to swing congressional districts in 2020, they’re going to have no hope of holding onto the Senate.
As for No Labels, we’re not going to endorse candidates based on their voting records or which party they belong to because our goal, regardless of party, is to have more centrists elected to Congress to adopt “Centrist Solutions,” if I may mention my book just one last time.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.