Joe Lieberman and the Jews: a complicated story
01/19/2011 - 12:11
James Besser

Update: the National Jewish Democratic Council just released a statement praising Lieberman for his "years of dedicated and loyal service" and saying that "his presence and voice in the Senate will be missed."

It'll be hard to find anybody who's surprised at today's expected announcement that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is calling it quits next year after four terms in the Senate.

Lieberman became an icon in the Jewish world when he became the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the Senate in 1989; the press loved stories about how he came to the Hill on Shabbat only when there were critical votes, and then he walked.

His stature among Jewish voters soared in 2000 when he became Al Gore's vice presidential nominee and the first Jew nominated to a major party ticket.

But his outspoken and unflagging support for the Iraq war infuriated his Democratic base, including many Jews. Lieberman, the erstwhile Democrat who became an independent in 2006 after losing the Democratic Senate primary, supported Sen. John McCain in 2008  – in a year when 78 percent of Jewish voters supported Barack Obama.

He also had nice things to say about the GOP vice presidential nominee that year, Sarah Palin – which is like waving a red cape at progressive Jewish voters.

It was revealing that after today's news, the Republican Jewish Coalition quickly issued a statement lavishing praise on the former Democrat - while there wasn't a word from the National Jewish Democratic Council.

In 2004 he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, but his campaign was a dud from Day One, hobbled by the Iraq issue.

Polls showed Lieberman would have an even harder time winning reelection in 2012. The Democratic Party didn't want him back and his relatively liberal positions on some domestic issues – including his leadership in last year's successful effort to repeal the military's “don't ask don't tell” policy on gay and lesbian service personnel – made him too moderate for today's GOP.

So as political surprises go, today's announcement is no bigee.

It would be fascinating to see some national Jewish polling on Lieberman today. I suspect it would show the predictable huge chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox voters, with the Orthodox minority still avid supporters of the Connecticut independent.

For the non-Orthodox majority, detailed questions would likely reveal both admiration for his trailblazing accomplishments and strong opposition to his positions on key issues. And maybe a touch of disappointment.

Lieberman's election as the first Orthodox Jew in the Senate and his 2000 vice presidential nomination represented a kind of political coming of age for American Jews.

There may have been a second coming of age that happened later, when it became clear Jews didn't feel obligated to support Joe just because he is a Jew. Maybe that's the best sign yet that Jews have truly arrived in American politics.

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For many moderate Democrats (and I include myself in that catgory), it was Lieberman's support for McCain in 2008 that was beyond the pale. Until that point, even those who disagreed with some of his positions could view him as a fellow Democrat and (if they were Jewish) take a certain amount of pride in his accomplishments. There were plenty of other Democrats, after all, who supported the Iraq War initially because they believed that Sadd0am Hussein had or was on the verge of acquiring weapons of mass destruction -- not necessarily nuclear weapons, but at least chemical or biological weapons. In retrospect, Lieberman's 2006 primary loss to Ned Lamont was a turning point, though it need not have been. For an incumbent defeated in a primary to run as an independent was not unprecedented. Lieberman promised the voters that if reelected he would caucus as a Democrat, and he did. But it soon became clear that he was taking the "independent" label seriously and apparently felt that the circumstances of his reelection liberated him to do some things he could not have done had he been reelected as a Democrat, the most dramatic of which, of course, was his support of McCain. (Contrast his attitude with that of Sen. Lisa Murkowski [R-Alaska], who won reelection as an independent write-in candidate but, alas, is unlikely to behave any less like a Republican.) Had McCain won, Lieberman would probably have received a Cabinet appointment. With Obama's victory, there was nothing left f0or him to do but to serve out his term honorably and then retire. It's a shame because he is a good man and a good Senator -- and, but for a few hundred Florida chads, he would have been the first Jewish Vice President of the United States.