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Joe Lieberman: Staying above Partisanship

Image via Times of Israel

“The last four or five years I was in the Senate, there was simply no Democrat more conservative than any Republican and no Republican more liberal than any Democrat. And that’s just wrong. It’s unnatural.”

Former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s career on Capitol Hill lasted more than two decades. During his four terms in the Senate, Mr. Lieberman would sit on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, serve an instrumental role in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, and become known for his involvement in the creation of the United States Department of Homeland Security. After serving as Al Gore’s running mate during the 2000 election, Sen. Lieberman would later seek the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

Today, Sen. Lieberman identifies as independent and is involved with the organization No Labels, a bipartisan political group aimed at finding independent, practical approaches to governing.

This interview was originally published on July 1st, 2018.

Thank you for being with us, Senator. Looking forward to our conversation. Getting started, you had a book out this March With Liberty and Justice, The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai this March. Could you talk a little bit about how you came to write this book and how you decided to tackle this idea of the intersection between religion and law? 

The origin of this comes from my own religious experience, particularly the religious calendar, but it makes a larger point. I begin with this—as an observant Jew—to note that the holiday of Passover is the most observed of Jewish holidays, even well beyond the Sabbath. It is followed and connected to another holiday seven weeks later, which is called Shavuot in Hebrew. It translates into also being called the festival of the receiving of the law. Part of why Passover’s so popular—if I can put it that way—is because it celebrates freedom and the intervention of God to liberate the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

What’s clear from the biblical text is that there was a purpose to that liberation. It wasn’t just so that they would be free from slavery. Obviously, that was the beginning of it and the foundation of it, but it was all about going to Mount Sinai to receive the law, which is what is celebrated on that holiday seven weeks later. From that premise, I draw the conclusion that while we value freedom, freedom without law is likely to lead to chaos, violence, immorality, and maybe even self-destruction.

But with law, you have a chance to achieve justice. This is a book that develops those themes from a biblical context—but also from my own experiences as a lawyer, lawmaker, and a law enforcer during the time I was Attorney General of Connecticut. Though it begins with the Bible, it’s really a celebration of the necessity and importance of law in our lives.

So there’s some intersection of law and freedom that together produce the best life worth living? 

That’s exactly right. The Bible provides—as I say in the book at one point—what you might say are examples of living at the extreme. During the time of Noah, there was no law, and the world became corrupt. That led to the flood, and you can take this as truth, or a metaphor. Then in Egypt, under Pharaoh, you might say it was all law because the Pharaoh was the dictator, and people had no freedom. If you can combine freedom with a government of limited laws, then you get justice. This, of course, fits directly with the American experience from our founding to our history today, and I talk about that a lot in the book.

So it seems there is something of a balancing act in finding the right common ground. So that leads nicely to my next set of questions about finding common ground and finding an antidote to some of the polarization today, which is the focus of a lot of our coverage at Merion West. So I want to ask you a little bit about your organization No Labels, and I understand that you and Jon Huntsman have been two of the political figures at the helm of the organization. I see now that its House Problem Solvers Caucus has 48 members. What has made No Labels successful at finding the independent, common ground solution?

First, let me say that I miss Jon Huntsman. He actually had to leave the co-chairmanship of No Labels when he became ambassador to Russia. He was chair with me for quite a while, and they haven’t filled the Republican seat. Maybe they think I fill both seats because I’ve been an independent. No Labels was founded about eight or nine years ago. I was aware of it from the beginning when I was in the Senate. I was supportive, but I really got actively involved when I left the Senate five years ago.

It’s been driven by a woman named Nancy Jacobson, who used to be a fundraiser, and she felt that too much of the money she was raising was being wasted on partisan combat. Nothing was being achieved by it, and she wanted to see if she could start an organization that would break through that. She gathered around her a really remarkable group of supporters, and it’s followed a progression. I think, at the beginning, that No Labels mostly tried to create occasions when Republican and Democratic members of Congress could get together and discuss an issue to see if they could find common ground. That was constructive, but ultimately not as effective as we wanted it to be.

I think at some point three years ago, we all decided that the problem of crippling partisanship in Washington and the federal government is caused by politics. We would only make it better by being involved in politics, so we started to raise money through various forms, PACs, and private fundraising to say to members of Congress, including a lot of whom joined the Problem Solvers Caucus. If you really work with one another across party lines to try to find common ground and get something done, an interest group or your party is angry and either doesn’t support you financially or actually comes in and opposes you financially, we’ve got your back. That encouraged a lot of the people who joined No Labels. They joined because they wanted to feel like they were getting something done instead of just in constant warfare with one another.

Then we took it one step further—and most interestingly in the 2016 congressional campaign—got involved, as a test of concept, in party primaries. Of course, in the party primaries, Republicans are dominated by the right, and the Democrats are dominated by the left. We went at two primaries, one Republican and one Democrat, on behalf of candidates, who were more toward the center. Regardless 0f whether they were center-left or center-right, they were committed to negotiating with people in the other party to achieve a result. We won both of those races. One of them was in Kansas, where we nominated and then elected a Republican candidate, Roger Marshall. Then in Florida, a candidate named Darren Soto [was elected]. They both defeated candidates to the left and right of them. We’re trying that again this year and have won more than we’ve lost.

It’s not easy because we’re trying to bring out people who don’t normally come out in primaries. Mostly, ideologues on the left and the right come out in [primaries]. Our biggest win this year—and probably most visible race we were involved in—was with Dan Lipinski, a Congressman from Illinois and founding member of the No Labels Problem Solvers Caucus. He’s generally a centrist or independent, and he was being challenged by an aggressive, effective, and well-financed candidate from the left.

And we went to back him up because we thought it was really important, and it would’ve hurt the movement—our movement—if he lost. It was close, but he won. We’re going to continue to do that this year. Basically, I think we’re creating a political context in which a lot of the members of Congress from both parties, who came to Congress to try to get something done, can be empowered to actually work with one another to do what has always been done in Congress. That is to negotiate, compromise, and settle for less than 100%, but get a lot more than 0% of what you want.

It reminds me of the organization Unite America, which is trying to elect more expressly independent, “I” next to their name candidates to Congress and state legislatures, as well. Back to the subject of books, I want to ask you about John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and its very compelling stories about members of the Senate breaking with party or expectations. There was the Senator who voted against the First World War. Another voting against establishing the tribunal at Nuremberg. With partisanship stronger than ever, what are some of the recent acts of political independence or courage in Congress or elsewhere that have most impressed you?

That was an important book to me. Kennedy was for my generation—and certainly for me—an inspiration for public service. The book gave a historical context to it all. So it’s a really good question. I would say, probably thinking more of the Senate because I know the Senate better, that the most notable was—and I’m a little biased here because John McCain is one of my best friends in life—when he came back from his surgery last summer. The Obamacare repeal was up, and he surprised everybody by voting “No” against the Republican bill.

But what was most important, in addition to the vote, was the statement he made that day. It made clear he wasn’t just doing something because he was angry at Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell. He was angry at the way the system was operating and basically said you shouldn’t pass something like Obamacare and shouldn’t repeal it with members of one party. We need to go back and do this—as he said in the regular order—to let people try amendments and then see what we end up with on the floor. I think McCain was probably the greatest recently, but I also give Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski a lot of credit because they also broke from the party on Obamacare. There was a lot of pressure on them from the President and from the Republican congressional leadership. I give them a lot of credit for what they did. Jeff Flake has also been sort of out on his own, but, of course, he’s not running anymore. What’s interesting about Collins and Murkowski is that they are running, I presume, and they’ve shown some real courage.

You mentioned your friendship with John McCain, and this is a question I also asked Lincoln Chafee when I was interviewing him last week. And it’s about the role of cross-party friendships. What is the role of these personal relationships that help to get things done? So Governor Chafee was talking about his time serving on the Warwick City Council. Even though he was in the minority on that body, he would go to the bar across the street afterward and spend some time with his colleagues on the other side. And he felt that helped ease of some of the partisan tensions. You’ve, likewise, been known for your friendship with John McCain and other Republicans, especially when you were a Democrat. 

I think it’s very important. You have to understand as I did over time that the Senate, beyond the all the coverage in the media, the back and forth, the big news, big debates; it’s really a hundred people going to work every day in the same place. Your ability to trust and like your colleagues in the Senate workplace makes it more likely you’re going to get things done with them just as it does in a private workplace—or any other workplace. With John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lindsey Graham, over time, I got to know the three of them. I’m just picking people out three from the other party. I could name a lot of others over time that I worked with, but they’re the three best examples.

Part of what happens is that you develop to put it simply: trust. There’s total transparency. Those three, who are the Republicans I’d say I’m closest to, we all knew that we were going to disagree on some things. We were just going to tell each other up front, “I can’t work with you on this” or, “I can’t accept this amendment.”

So there was communication at the outset that this might be the case?

Yes, and it develops out of a friendship. Some of it develops frankly, out of working together. It may not be socializing a lot. But if you’re—let’s say, as with John McCain—I traveled with him a lot around the world because we shared an interest in foreign policy and national security. You’re sitting on a plane, you talk, you learn about each other, you laugh a little, and you develop a rapport and trust. 

Is there camaraderie around the idea: “We’re all in this together, or “We’re part of this body working on behalf of the country or what we respectively believe in?” 

There is. That’s part of it. We keep coming back to, “Why did we work so hard to get here? Why did we do things that we didn’t really like doing, like raising money for our campaigns to get here?” It’s to do something. To me, I never sponsored a bill that I really cared about unless I could find a Republican co-sponsor because I knew that that was the way [the bill] was going to have a chance, a better than even chance, to get it actually enacted.

In 1971, approximately 45% of the House warranted the classification of moderate. Today, a much smaller number fit that bill; FairVote puts it at 2.7% in 2012. What are some of the biggest obstacles a politician has to face today to resist the pull of the ideological extremes? John Boehner was talking about the partisan media environment. Former Congressman Jason Altmire has suggested it’s the closed primary system in states like Pennslyvania. Is it party leaders? What is the biggest obstacle to getting along? 

Those numbers you cited are stunning. I haven’t looked at it in the past year, but National Journal does a survey of representative votes in three different areas: foreign and defense policy, economic policy, and social policy. In my early years in the Senate, which was 1989 through the ‘90s, you had a group—between the 40s of mixed-up Republicans and Democrats on the liberal-conservative spectrum. The last four or five years that I was in the Senate, there was simply no Democrat more conservative than any Republican and no Republican more liberal than any Democrat. That’s just wrong; it’s unnatural.

Part of what’s happened is all the things you cited: gerrymandered districts and primaries dominated by the ideological extremes. People in Congress are worried about re-election and that tends to be, particularly in the House, determined in the primaries. The primaries are dominated by the ideological candidate. That’s part of what I described to you earlier as what No Labels is trying to overcome. The second is how partisan the media has become. The parties have also become more partisan, and it’s a funny thing to say because it seems evident that parties would be partisan. But, for most of our history, we’ve always had spirited elections, but after the elections, the parties would figure out how to work together and negotiate compromises to get something done.

Now, they’re always thinking about the next election two years forward, and it inhibits the kind of risk-taking or independence that you need to deal with big problems. You can’t solve, let’s say, immigration, which is very timely today, without taking some risk. And I mean a political risk; you’re going to offend somebody. You certainly can’t get the federal government budget back in balance without taking some risk. The place is risk-averse.

The other thing is the influence of money, which particularly after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens vs. United, and it Katy barred the door, so anything or any amount goes. It means that candidates in both parties are more dependent on either interest groups on the left or right, which give them money, or rich individuals who often are not doing it to further their own private business-ness, but for an ideological reason. If they give you a million bucks, or whatever, they expect you to be there to deliver.

They want a return on their investment.

Right, they do want a return on their investment. This maybe goes back to our earlier discussion about liberty and justice. Too many members of Congress give up their freedom, specifically, their freedom of conscience. I think it’s part of why so many are not running again because they’re not happy. They’re not enjoying being members of Congress. Hopefully, groups like No Labels will empower them to do what I think most of them came to Congress to do, which is to get something done. There are some experiments being tried in some states: in California, they have a non-partisan commission that draws the congressional district lines. It seems to have done better, and also a number of states now are adopting what I call a “top two” nominating system; some people call it “jungle” primary. Basically, there’s only one primary for office, and members of all parties participate in the same primary.  You have to get over 50% to get the nomination, so it usually requires a runoff. And that means that they’re more people voting than just the ideological extremes of both parties. That tends to moderate things.

Hopefully, that’ll work and eventually—going back to what you said before—it’s not easy in America. If things don’t get better, there’ll be a strong and hopefully successful independent candidacy for president. That would shake up the system, which it certainly needs today.

Thank you for joining us this morning, Senator Lieberman.

I enjoyed it, Erich. All the best.  

This interview was originally published on July 1st, 2018..

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