Whose Side Is Joe Lieberman On?

Sen. Joe Lieberman is one of the most loved and loathed men in politics these days. Many liberal Democrats loathe him because he broke with the party line on Iraq, strongly backing the war and the surge. These critics effectively exiled Lieberman from the Connecticut Democratic Party in 2006 when they backed a rival, Ned Lamont, for Lieberman's Senate seat. Lieberman was then forced to run (and win) as an independent. Yet many hawkish Democrats--and more than a few Republicans--love Lieberman for similar reasons. Supporters see him as a man of principle, willing to take risks and reach across party lines for what he believes.

What Lieberman believes now is that Republican John McCain should be the next president. There's even been speculation that the renegade Democrat could emerge as a VP choice if McCain wins the GOP nomination. NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet spoke to Senator Lieberman at his Washington office as he was preparing to stump for his old Republican friend and colleague in Florida this weekend. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You almost won the vice presidency as a Democrat in 2000, and you later ran as a Democratic presidential candidate. Now you're supporting a Republican for president. Why the change?
Joe Lieberman:
Well, I would not have guessed that I'd be here. But part of it is [my] increasing concern that our politics has become much too partisan, and that partisanship has made it harder to get things done. Parties are important in our governmental system, but they're not more important than the public interest. I think increasingly Washington conducts itself in a way that seems to put party ahead of everything. And the parties are in turn being dominated, certainly in the nominating process, by inner-core groups that don't reflect the totality of the party and certainly not the totality of the country.

You're still a registered Democrat, correct?
I am.

So you won't be able to actually vote for McCain in the primary.
I won't. It's funny, I just thought of that [last night]. I started to make a note to myself to make sure I asked for an absentee ballot. And I realized: I can't vote for him, because the Republican Party in Connecticut doesn't allow Democrats to vote in its primary.

Will you vote in the Democratic primary?
No, I won't, because I'm supporting McCain.

Now, as a lifelong Democrat, do you ever worry about the kind of judges a Republican--any Republican--might nominate during the next four to eight years, when liberal justices are likely to retire?
Sure I do. In fact, I was involved with McCain and others in the so-called Gang of 14, to try to preserve the 60-vote requirement on Supreme Court justice confirmations. But, look, your question raises a larger question: it's a fact that John McCain is more conservative on many issues than I am, so why am I supporting him? I'm supporting him because, one, I know him very well. This is not just somebody I am reading about. I have worked very closely with John on a host of issues, mainly national security … from stopping the genocide in the Balkans, to the Iraq War, to criticizing the post-Iraq War strategy, to creating the 9/11 Commission, to working on global warming, which is both an environmental and national-security issue in my opinion. I know his character and I trust his judgment. So even though I may disagree with him on some things, I have confidence that he will always do what he thinks is right and best for the country, and will always be looking for ways to work across party lines.

But the second, more specific reason is that the most important issue facing Americans is our security. And I think that John, not just because of his experience but because of his ability to make tough, principled decisions under pressure, is better prepared than any other candidate to be commander in chief in a time of war.

I'd like to ask you about a couple of issues on which you disagree with McCain. Abortion is an obvious one. He believes that Roe v. Wade must be overturned, and you don't. Are you concerned about that? Do you think he's willing to negotiate that or moderate his stance?
I don't know. But from his record I understand that he's been consistently pro-life and I've been consistently pro-choice. We just have a respectful disagreement on that. It's a very difficult issue. There's nobody I agree with on everything.

Let me ask about one more issue you disagree with him on, and that's gun control. He believes that gun control is "a proven failure in fighting crime," and you've been for gun control.
I believe that the Second Amendment says that gun ownership is in a specially protected category according to the Constitution. But that doesn't mean that it's not subject to regulation in the public interest, in just the way that even speech is subject to regulation. So I've supported a lot of gun-control measures. John and I actually worked together on one, which was to close the gun-show loophole [which allows unlicensed individuals to sell privately owned weapons at gun shows, avoiding criminal background checks. The proposed legislation died.]

So you think he might be willing to work with Democrats on measures to regulate gun use?
You'd have to ask him. But I don't disagree [with him] as much as he disagrees with some other Democrats, who are much more absolute about it than I am.

Going back to 2006, some of your critics are suggesting that you cannot forgive or forget what happened during that period, when the party and some of its leading lights backed Ned Lamont for your Senate seat. Some have used the word "vengeful." How do you address that?
Well, I'm not a vengeful person. And I don't feel vengeful about 2006. But I'll tell you, it was a year that had an effect on me. It's not that I learned lessons, it's that I was, in a very personal way, impacted by what I saw as the increasing partisanship of both parties, and the increasing tendency to want to apply litmus tests. So in this case, the litmus test was that I supported the Iraq War, because I obviously thought that in good conscience, consistent with my entire record on foreign and defense policy, it was the right thing to do. Like McCain, I criticized [Donald] Rumsfeld after Saddam was overthrown. But that apparently didn't matter … So I decided after the primary that the law of Connecticut gave me this right to run as an independent, and I simply felt too strongly that I could do a better job for the state than Mr. Lamont. In the end, of course, I was re-elected, and I have this very profound sense of gratitude to the people of Connecticut. So my overall feeling about 2006 is actually not one of vengeance, it's one of gratitude. And also that I'm going to do what I think is right, regardless of party. That's what led me to support John.

How did you make the decision?
I had decided as I approached this presidential election--as an independent Democrat affected by my experience in 2006 but also concerned about what partisanship was doing to our country--that I was going to wait until the two major parties nominated candidates, and then I would decide which candidate I would support. But then McCain called me. We're very close. We had just come back from a trip to Iraq on Thanksgiving Day. And he called me the next week and said, "OK, I don't want to get you in more trouble than you're in, but I think it would really help me if you came out for me now." I called him back a few days later and said, "I thought about it, and I'm going to support you, because I believe that among all the candidates you are the best qualified." That's how it happened.

The Clintons backed Lamont in the Connecticut [general] election, as did your colleague Christopher Dodd. That must have had some personal impact. You wouldn't be human if it didn't.
Sure it did. I do want to say in fairness that both the Clintons and Chris Dodd helped me in the primary. And some Democrats in the state--mayors and the Speaker of the House--stuck with me, which I greatly appreciate. I understood why Chris Dodd had to support [Lamont], because he was thinking of running for president. He did a commercial for Lamont … it hurt to see it. It hurt on a personal basis, not a political basis, because we had a very close relationship. I really have great affection for him. So, you know, that's life. You kinda go on, but I don't feel any need to get even. Did it affect the relationship? I'm sure it did. But you get over it, and you work with people. So my support for McCain is really quite affirmative and strong for McCain. It's not negative against anybody.

There's concern now that since you've backed McCain in the campaign that you'll start caucusing with the Republicans in the Senate and tip the balance of power.
I have no intention of doing that. I see no circumstances under which I would leave the Democratic caucus … Although I've now become more welcome among Republicans than Democrats, I feel a special responsibility not to leave the party, but to stay and fight for what I believe is right. I today represent a tradition which, historically, has been at the party's core when it has been successful. Truman, Kennedy, Humphrey, Scoop Jackson … [they were] progressive on domestic policy, very strong and idealistic [on foreign policy]. Now it's called neocon, but it used to be called New Deal, Fair Deal foreign policy … That's the combination that the Democratic Party is all about. I see America's statement of mission in the Declaration of Independence as a universal statement.

When you say "I have no intention …" or "There are no circumstances …" that still leaves a little wiggle room. Are you meaning to leave that there?
Well, I never want to say never. But I hope that I'm never in a position where I feel so frustrated and marginalized in the Democratic Party, particularly on foreign policy, that I feel forced to leave the party. I hope that never happens.

You've said that you will not run as a VP candidate, yet speculation continues. Do you categorically rule that out?
I do, I do. Been there, done that. I'm very grateful to be a senator.

Where can you best help McCain going forward, in which states and with which constituencies?
I'm doing whatever they ask me to do. I've so far been to New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina and Florida. I'm going back to Florida this weekend before the primary, and then I'll go back [on the campaign trail] the weekend before Super Tuesday and go wherever they want me to go. I wouldn't be surprised if I do some stuff in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts. In Florida, they sent me into some ethnic communities, obviously the Jewish community there, and the Cuban and more broadly the Hispanic community.

You're talking about bipartisanship. Ironically, in this particular campaign there are Democrats who are saying the same thing. Barack Obama, for instance. In many of his speeches he talks about the need for bipartisanship and the need to win support from Red States and Blue States and so on. Do you not believe that rhetoric?
Actually, I'm encouraged by Obama's rhetoric on that. But you know, it's part of a picture. And I just agree with John [McCain] so much more on national-security and foreign-policy issues. Also, John has a record. John is a conservative, but he's always been open to forming alliances with people that he agrees with on particular issues. So if he disagrees with someone on gun control, he won't hesitate to work with him on foreign-policy issues.

Some of the criticisms of McCain include that he's a bit of hothead and has a temper that flares rather dramatically at times--and that he's old. How do you address those?
I can personally rebut both of those. John is a remarkably disciplined person, including emotionally. He drives himself very hard, and he's smart as hell. Have I seen him be passionate about things? Sure. But I want to really be explicit: this is not a kind of anger that loses control; this is a kind of passion about stuff. I've never seen him lose control. The other thing is that some of the people he has the most passionate exchanges with are very good friends. And on the age thing, he loves to trot out his mother--95 and going strong. He's in great shape. I travel with him a lot. We're roughly comparable age. I'm proud I keep up with him. I've seen younger members of the Senate who have pleaded with him to slow up on foreign travel … To put it mildly, he went through a near-death experience in the POW camp, and I think he just wants to get things done.

Right now you're campaigning for him against Republicans. Will it become more awkward--or will you feel uncomfortable--if or when you're out there campaigning against a Democrat?
No. 1, as my late mother would say, I hope I have such a problem--that McCain is the candidate. Look, to be honest, there will be a twinge, occasionally, because if it's Obama or [Hillary] Clinton, I know both of them, and I'm working together with them. But ultimately, I've thought about this, and I know I've selected the person who is best to lead our country in the future, to be commander in chief in a time of war--and to do more than anyone else could to break through the partisan stupidity here in Washington.