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A lonely bipartisan voice

Joe Lieberman was willing to put country ahead of party

Joe Lieberman leaves the West Wing of the White House on May 17, 2017. Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

A lonely bipartisan voice
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For the last two decades, Joe Lieberman was often identified as every Republican’s favorite Democrat. The former senior senator from Connecticut died last Wednesday at the age of 82, after complications from a fall.

Lieberman first came to national prominence in 2000 as the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore. In the chaos of the closest election in national history, as George W. Bush fought in court to protect the narrowest of leads and America learned about hanging chads and pregnant chads and butterfly ballots, some Republicans printed up T-shirts with the Democrats’ logo changed to read “Sore Loserman.” But after the Supreme Court ruled to end in certainty, Lieberman was anything but a sore loser.

A deeply faithful, observant Jew, Lieberman saw the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of a civilizational struggle against the forces of radical Islam, which targeted Israel as well as America. In the immediate aftermath, he worked closely with the Bush administration and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to create the new Department of Homeland Security and to reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

By the standards of his day, Lieberman was a moderate Democrat, leading the fight against violence in video games and publicly criticizing Bill Clinton’s Oval Office tryst with Monica Lewinsky, even as he eventually opposed impeachment. He also eventually voted for Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, even as he also succeeded in curbing its more expansionist tendencies. But he was a solidly liberal Democrat on key moral issues. Though he said his goal was to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” he voted against the partial birth abortion ban and earned a 100 percent rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL); he was also a champion for gay rights, especially the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military. We should not downplay the gravity of his errors in holding unbiblical positions on many issues.

Lieberman’s greatest contributions came during the Global War on Terror. A resolute hawk, he supported America’s efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006 he was beat in the Democratic primary for another term by anti-war liberal Ned Lamont, but he retained the seat running as an independent with strong support from Connecticut conservatives. He stuck with the surge in Iraq and publicly campaigned for his friend John McCain in 2008, even delivering an address to the Republican National Convention. And he extended that attitude to Iran, leading advocacy efforts against allowing the mullahs any closer to nuclear weapons. 

Lieberman’s death allows a moment to reflect on the best of bipartisanship: not necessarily compromise, but convergence born of shared convictions even if starting from different places.

Through these various ups and downs, Lieberman led a career free from the scandal that plagues so many. Indeed, in his book In Praise of Public Life, he reflects that each candidate or nominee in today’s polarized media era “must face questions not only about how he is doing his job but how he is living his life—and how he has lived his life.” Voters have a right to ask those questions, and at least to wish that their politicians passed that test.

After leaving office, the former senator joined the board of the American Federation for Children, a loud but lonely voice for school choice in a Democratic Party wholly captive to the teachers union bosses.

Lieberman’s death allows a moment to reflect on the best of bipartisanship: not necessarily compromise, but convergence born of shared convictions even if starting from different places. And most of all, a willingness to put country ahead of party, a phrase that’s cheap to say but that Lieberman lived when it was hard. 

In his famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, R.I., President George Washington promised peace for a religious minority that feared persecution, closing, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” In his decades in public service Lieberman got some big and important questions wrong, and in fact, very wrong, but every American can sit in greater safety thanks to his steadfast and bipartisan leadership in a dangerous moment for the nation.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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