If there’s anyone in America who knows what it’s like to infuriate your party as you leave it behind, it’s Joe Lieberman, the former vice-presidential candidate and senator from Connecticut who made a similar calculation when he became an “independent Democrat” in 2006 — and won.
And though they differed over the Iraq war, which Lieberman, now 80, passionately supported, he’s thrilled that Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is joining him in exile to become the 22nd sitting senator since 1890 to switch parties. Sinema made her move official last week by filing federal paperwork as an independent candidate, though she has yet to say that she will run again in 2024.
Lieberman dared not risk another independent run in 2012, and is now a lobbyist. I spoke with him about life as a political apostate, his decision to endorse John McCain in the 2008 presidential election and how he threatened Democratic leaders who tried to punish him afterward. Here’s our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:
What’s your reaction to Senator Sinema’s decision to switch parties to become an independent?
I’m encouraged by it. We’re in a time when the two major parties have not played the role that they are intended to play, which is to help the country solve some of our problems, when in fact the two parties have become the problem, at least in the way they are behaving. And that’s why, as I like to say, the fastest-growing political party in America is no party.
Sinema hasn’t said that she’s running in 2024, but I don’t think she has any choice but to run as an independent. It’s possible that the Democrats would somehow make peace with her and renominate her. But I consider that to be so unlikely as to be impossible.
Is there anything that the Democratic Party can do to persuade Democrats who are thinking of running in Arizona against Sinema in 2024 to stand down — that they would just be throwing that seat to Republicans?
Just watching the strong statements by the two congressmen who are thinking about running for her seat and the Arizona Democratic Party, I think Washington Democrats will have a hard time convincing Democrats in Arizona. But on the other hand, a year can be a lifetime. If, in 2024, it looks like a person running as an independent will help elect a Republican, who’s to say what might happen?
You took a lot of criticism when you left the Democratic Party in 2006. And if I’m recalling my history correctly, you declared in advance that if you lost the Democratic primary, you would run as an “independent Democrat.”
It was probably the most painful chapter in my political life. But that was a very different situation.In my case, I had to say it about a month in advance because I had to start collecting signatures on a petition to get on the ballot as an independent. They had to be filed the day after the Democratic primary.
I knew I was making an awkward decision that was unpopular. But I also thought: I’ve been independent since I got elected in 1988. I always had good support from independents and Republicans. I just am not going to let my political story end in a Democratic primary.
There were five or six Democratic senators who stuck with me, and a couple of them actually came out to campaign for me. But I was mostly out on my own. Part of the emotional experience of that year was the sense of being let down by friends. I was a grown-up, so I understood that’s the way party politics is, but it still hurt.
And what was it like when you came back to the Senate?
I was greeted with open arms. The time when I really aroused anger was when I supported my buddy John McCain for president in 2008, two years later.
McCain rang me around Thanksgiving time in 2007, and he said, “I’ve got a tough question for you. Don’t worry about your answer.” So I said, “Well, John, now you’ve got me interested. What’s the question?”
And he said: “My campaign for president is down. Now we’re coming back, but it’s all going to be decided in New Hampshire, and independents can vote in the primary. And you are Mr. Independent. So I’m asking you if you would endorse me.”
I said, “Wow, that’s a big one. I’m going to think about it.” And I thought about it for a couple of days. I thought John would make a great, bipartisan president, and Obama and Clinton had not even thought to ask me. So I said, “Sure.”
So what happened next?
After the election, a group of colleagues led by Bernie Sanders moved to deny me my seniority and therefore my committee chairmanship. And Harry Reid, who was my dear friend, called me up the day after the election and said, “I need to see you tomorrow morning.”
On Wednesday morning after the 2008 election, I also got a call from Mitch McConnell inviting me to join the Republican caucus.
I said, “You know, Mitch, that’s really good of you, but unless the Democrats give me some reason to leave them, I’m going to talk to Harry and see what happens there.”
I met with Harry and he said: “Joe, you know, there’s real anger about you supporting McCain. I’ve got to ask you to give up your chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. But I can give you the chairmanship of the Small Business Committee.”
I said: “Harry, I can’t believe you’re saying that. You know, I’ve been really close to you and you have been there for tough votes. And when I haven’t been able to get there, I’ve always given you a warning. But if you insist on it, Mitch McConnell already called me.”
And he said, “What can he do for you? They’re in the minority.”
I said, “You know what? I don’t know what he can do for me, but I’m not going to take an insult like that.”
In the classic Harry style, he looked down and was silent. To me, it seemed like about five minutes. It was probably 15 or 20 seconds. Then he looked up and he said: “That’s what I thought you were going to say, but I had to ask. All right, now let’s talk about how we’re going to get you the votes.”
There was a vote in a closed meeting, and I won 42-13. So there was a price, but not that big a price.
Did you ever reconcile with Barack Obama over your endorsement of McCain?
We did, and it’s an interesting story. When Obama was elected to the Senate, each of the incoming senators got to choose a Republican and a Democrat to be their mentors. And Barack chose me as his Democratic mentor.
Sometime before 2008, he came to me and said he was thinking about running for president and asked me whether he should run. And I said: “You’ve got to know why you’re doing it. But you’re young, and if you don’t screw up, it’ll be a plus for you and you can come back and run again. But who knows? You might get nominated. You might get elected.”
But after Obama decided to run, he never came back for my support, nor did Hillary. It was the old story, you know? You’ve got to ask. And McCain asked me.
Did you ever talk to Obama about that decision?
We had a wonderful conversation on the floor of the Senate, probably the spring of 2008. He had come back off the campaign trail for a vote, and he had clinched the Democratic nomination. And I went over and congratulated him, and he said to me, “Part of the reason why I think I was able to get this nomination and I got a chance to be president is because of the barrier you broke in 2000 when you ran for vice president.”
He was extremely gracious. I was quite touched. So there was a sort of understanding about it.
Do you have any advice for Sinema?
She’s in a different position than she was in over the last couple of years, but it’s not that different. I think she’s just got to be true to herself. She can be a real help to the majority leader and to the Biden administration in helping them build bridges to some Republicans. And we can expect that McConnell will also be calling her for help.So she has an opportunity for this to be a very productive couple of years, whatever she decides to do in 2024.
What to read
The Senate passed a $1.7 trillion spending bill before a Friday deadline, Emily Cochrane reports, sending the bill to the House for a vote as lawmakers race to prevent a government shutdown.
Jennifer McClellan, a Virginia state senator, won a Democratic primary in a special House election, putting her on a path to become the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress, Maya King reports.
The I.R.S. subjected both Barack Obama and Joe Biden to annual tax audits once they took office, representatives for both men said, intensifying questions about how Donald Trump escaped such scrutiny until Democrats in the House started inquiring. Charlie Savage and Alan Rappeport have the details.
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