Lieberman’s War Extends to Home Front

Posted May 5, 2008 at 6:28pm

There was no table for Sen. Joe Lieberman at the Connecticut Democratic Party’s annual dinner last month.

The party didn’t have a table for the self-proclaimed Independent Democrat at its main event last year either, which, according to Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo, typically includes a setting for every Democratic Member of the state’s Congressional delegation.

“It just was understood that we knew he wouldn’t be coming,” DiNardo said.

After endorsing Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) for president, the veteran Democratic officeholder should not expect to be invited to many Democratic functions in the Nutmeg State this cycle — if he’s invited to any at all.

“At this point, I’m making the assumption that he won’t be coming to any functions at least between now and November,” DiNardo said.

Two years after Lieberman left — or rather, was kicked off — the party ballot and became an Independent Democrat, the Senator holds a unique position in both Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. In 2006, Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, a millionaire cable TV executive who hit the Senator over his support for the Iraq War. But Lieberman won the general election handily as an Independent.

Lieberman’s own electoral future — and his ability to influence the politics of his home state — hangs in the balance. He’s up for a fifth term in 2012, but at this point, it’s uncertain whether he will try to run as a Democrat again or stick with the “Connecticut for Lieberman” party that he created and ran on in 2006. And these questions will be moot if the Senator’s favored presidential candidate wins in November and he gets a top Cabinet spot.

But in the meantime, Lieberman’s political future lies somewhere in between party and independent politics: He donates to Republicans running for Senate and to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He caucuses with Senate Democrats, but his views on national security align more with the Republican side of the aisle. He campaigns happily for McCain in the state and says he would do the same for Democrats — if they would ever ask him.

“It’s fair to say that in a primary situation, Democrats tend not to ask me to help them because I think they think it would not help,” Lieberman conceded in an interview last week.

Regardless of his tenuous position at home, Lieberman holds the valuable position of giving Democrats the one-seat advantage they need to keeping the majority in the Senate. So compared to the way he’s treated on Capitol Hill, Lieberman said he feels the distance “in a personal way” more with his home-state Democrats.

Dan Gerstein, a veteran adviser to Lieberman, said there wasn’t a specific incident that created his rift with the Connecticut party.

“I don’t think there’s been a breaking point,” Gerstein said. “The relationship has changed in large part because of his status as a Independent Democrat and his support for the war, but most importantly his decision to support John McCain.”

DiNardo said she has not spoken to Lieberman at length for “well over a year, if not longer,” though both she and Lieberman insist that they maintain a good relationship, and DiNardo said the Senator’s estrangement from state party leaders does not affect his official Congressional duties.

An aide to Lieberman said politics back home has not influenced his ability to do his job.

“The politics is not a factor in working with the delegation on behalf of the state,” the official aide said. “He has a very good relationship with the Connecticut Congressional delegation, mayors in the state and officials.”

Gerstein said the end result is that Lieberman does not get invited to “as many rubber-chicken dinners” as he might have if just a “D” followed his name.

“The main consequences of that is that he has tried to be helpful to Democrats in the state, but the reality is he doesn’t get asked a lot,” Gerstein said. “But if you talk to many of the mayors he’s worked with on appropriations projects, you’ll find that he’s been incredibly responsive and helpful in advancing the needs of their community.”

According to at least one Republican in the state, Lieberman’s situation has frustrated Democrats, despite the fact that he votes with Democrats on almost every issue except for national security.

“They’re furious with him,” Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy said. “They’re absolutely furious with him. I have been struck by the personal nature of it, the blogs, the letters from the more fringe, left wing groups of the Democratic Party. That’s a real reality that the Senator has to deal with.”

Nonetheless, Healy called Lieberman a “fairly moderate to liberal Senator,” except on issues of war and terrorism.

“On a host of other issues outside of terror and national defense, the Senator is certainly a mainstream Democrat in terms of economic issues and some social issues,” Healy said.

Healy said that he has not witnessed any protests against Lieberman in Connecticut and that the Senator enjoys “generally positive news coverage.”

Meanwhile in Washington, Lieberman is cordial with his fellow Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who recently defended his colleague in an interview with the New London Day.

“There are other members of our caucus who are of the same view as Joe Lieberman on the war, but did not end up in the situation Joe did politically,” Dodd told the newspaper.

Dodd compared Lieberman’s position to that of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who easily won re-election in what many political observers thought might be a competitive race in 2006.

“So I don’t see any reason at this juncture to be talking about someone being thrown out of the party,” Dodd, who endorsed Lamont in the general election, told The Day. “It’s again, this is not a case, we saw a few years ago, with [former Sen.] Zell Miller [D-Ga.], where he just, on every issue, took exactly the opposite view and went off on a different direction.”

Speaking of his home-state Congressional colleagues, Lieberman called his relationship with nine-term Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro a “lifetime closeness.” He said that his family, in particular, is very close with Republican Rep. Christopher Shays and that he is considering endorsing Shays in what is expected to be yet another competitive re- election race for the veteran House Member.

“I haven’t made any decision with it … that will come at a time,” Lieberman said. “It’s just honest to say, if I can quote the great McCain and give you some straight talk, that I think Chris Shays is a great Congressman and a wonderful human being. And finally, my mother loved him, so I got to count that in. But that’s not an endorsement.”

Shays, whose Democratic challenger, Jim Himes, was a vocal Lamont supporter in 2006, said he would welcome Lieberman’s endorsement. In fact, Shays endorsed Lieberman in 2006, despite the fact that there was a Republican, albeit one who was minimally competitive, in the race.

“I’m closer to [Lieberman] than most Members of the Congress or Senate,” Shays said.

Whether Lieberman needs his party to win re-election, it’s simple math that his party certainly needs him right now in Congress.“My sense is in Washington, every [Democratic] Senator knows that if it weren’t for Joe Lieberman, candidly, voting over 85 percent with the Democratic Party, they would be the minority and they would be the ranking members instead of the chairmen,” Shays said.