WASHINGTON (Dec. 14)
A year ago, being a moderate didn’t help Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Trying to win the New Hampshire primaries and gain steam in his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, Lieberman was defending his support for the U.S. war in Iraq to Democratic voters angry about the conflict.
Fast forward to the present day, however, and the Connecticut senator’s centrist approach has made him an important player in the Senate, and possibly in the Bush administration.
As the White House searches for a new secretary for the Homeland Security Department, many eyes are turning to Lieberman. He received ringing endorsements this week from several of his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, where Lieberman is the top Democrat.
President Bush “said he wanted to reach across the aisle, and this would be a great way to do it,” Collins said Monday. “There’s no doubt that Joe would provide strong leadership, and he’s exceptionally well-qualified for the post. I think he’d be terrific.”
Lieberman also has been mentioned as a candidate to be the first national intelligence czar or U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Several media reports suggested the White House is courting the Jewish lawmaker. Lieberman is spending Chanukah with his family, and his spokesman, Matt Gobush, said he wasn’t aware of any discussions with the Bush administration in the past few days.
“He’s not seeking a position in the administration, nor has he been offered one,” Gobush said, noting that Lieberman already has started efforts to run for Senate re-election in 2006.
Even if he doesn’t join Bush’s team, Lieberman may get the kind of public exposure as a senator that he was seeking a year ago as a presidential candidate. As one of only a handful of moderate Democrats in next year’s Senate, Lieberman may play a leading role as a bridge to the Republican majority, and could be courted by both sides on key issues.
“Without people like John Breaux, who has retired, and without much of a southern wing left, there aren’t a lot of people who can act as bridges and negotiators,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. “It’s possible Sen. Lieberman can adopt that role.”
Throughout his Senate career, Lieberman has made a name as a centrist on a wide range of issues, and as someone willing to cross party lines.
Lieberman first received national attention for partnering with conservative activist William Bennett to chastise the entertainment industry for excessive violence in the media.
He was one of the first Democrats to speak out against President Clinton amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
He became best known during the 2000 presidential cycle, when Al Gore tapped him to be his running mate. Lieberman’s public expressions of faith on the campaign trail were controversial, but he became a popular candidate in a controversial election, and the first Jew in modern times on a major party presidential ticket.
However, his 2004 presidential campaign didn’t get far off the ground, partially because he wasn’t seen as liberal enough for a Democratic Party sharply opposed to many Bush administration policies, including the Iraq war.
But after Bush’s re-election and a growth in Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, moderate Democrats could be important bridge-builders. A Democrat who speaks the language of faith, as Lieberman often has demonstrated, may be in even greater demand as Republicans win votes by stressing values.
That may be what is attracting the White House. After Bernard Kerik withdrew his nomination for the homeland security job last week, admitting that he hired an illegal as a nanny, Republicans are said to be looking for someone who would be universally praised.
“They want someone who is safe, problem-free and full of credibility,” said Dan Gerstein, a former communications director for Lieberman. “No one fits that better than Joe Lieberman.”
Lieberman authored the legislation that created the Homeland Security Department and was a key proponent of the intelligence overhaul that passed Congress last week.
And unlike Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who often crosses party lines to support Democratic initiatives, Rothenberg said Lieberman has not met with animosity from within his own party for doing so.
Gerstein and other analysts say it’s unlikely that Lieberman will leave the Senate. For starters, his replacement in the Senate would be selected by Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican. There would be a great deal of pressure on Lieberman not to increase the Senate’s Republican majority.
And some believe Lieberman still harbors animosity over the 2000 election, in which Gore and he won the popular vote, while the Florida results — which proved divisive — remained unclear for weeks.
Instead, Lieberman likely will become a senior statesman in the Senate, liberated from the political correctness imposed on national political candidates and able to speak his mind at all times.
“It was natural that he was going to evolve into this role,” Gerstein said. “When he speaks on something, people listen.”
Already, Lieberman is working with Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to relaunch the Centrist Coalition, a group of 10 senators who will push for moderate approaches to economic, cultural and social issues.
“He’s showing he can still have a major influence on the direction of the country from the Senate, and I think he will continue to do so as long as he’s there,” Gerstein said.