The Extent of Joe Lieberman’s Evildoing Was Truly Remarkable

Joe Lieberman was a fairly unremarkable Washington politician who managed to get famous by becoming a particularly enthusiastic, inveterate warmonger and corporate marionette within the Democratic Party.

The late senator Joe Lieberman joins late senator John McCain's news conference to advocate intervention in Syria, 2012. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Joe Lieberman’s body wasn’t even cold when the predictable avalanche of tributes to his “conscience” and “doggedly independent” streak cascaded across the media. This is certainly one way to describe the career of the former long-serving Connecticut senator, who died yesterday due to complications from a fall.

Another way is to describe him as he actually was: a fairly unremarkable Washington politician who ably filled the standard Capitol Hill role of inveterate warmonger and corporate marionette.

Besides the many, many innocent lives he helped extinguish in foreign wars he backed, Lieberman’s main achievement was managing to work as a right-wing mole within the Democratic Caucus, giving him the unique ability to undermine and sabotage the party and its leadership from the inside — and providing a model to later Democratic saboteurs like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

Lieberman was a reliable George W. Bush ally on the “war on terror” and other issues, and had long been a suspect Democrat, let alone progressive lawmaker. His entire career was built on his conservatism, having beaten (with the support of William F. Buckley) liberal Republican Lowell Weicker in 1988 in a campaign where he supported bombing Libya, invading Grenada, and maintaining the US freeze-out of Cuba, all of which Weicker opposed. Lieberman also supported the death penalty for drug traffickers, a stealth form of school prayer, and strict spending cuts for the purpose of balancing the budget.

When Lieberman entered Congress, legendary racist Strom Thurmond came by to pay his respects, telling the young Lieberman, “I understand we think a lot alike in the way we do things” — chilling words that any decent human being would’ve responded to with “I certainly hope not.” What did Lieberman actually say? “Yes, I think we do.”

Through the ’90s, Lieberman supported the introduction of school vouchers for charter schools, pushed for dismantling affirmative action, called for reducing the capital gains tax, and advocated for “reforming” social security (he would later support the Bush’s attempt to privatize it). He was, after all, a five-term chairman of the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council, beginning in 1995.

As Lieberman repeatedly explained, he thought economic populism was a “sad foundation for a program” and railed against “class warfare” (none of which of course stopped Lieberman from later running TV ads lambasting his 2006 antiwar challenger as a “Greenwich millionaire”).

Lieberman’s résumé at this time also features his successful efforts to water down and eventually kill President Bill Clinton’s attempt at health care reform, his urging of Clinton to sign the 1996 welfare bill, and his support for the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act. He was also a tireless moral scold in the mold of Helen Lovejoy, spending that decade and beyond relentlessly complaining about, and threatening to censor, the supposedly immoral content on TV and radio and in video games.

Other than his appearance on the fundamentalist Christian The 700 Club, this moralizing reached its high point with Lieberman’s public castigation of Clinton in 1998 over his affair with his intern, which won him heaps of plaudits from Republicans — and, ironically, landed him on the presidential ticket with Al Gore, who was trying to distance himself from the disgraced president.

As the Bush campaign gleefully pointed out, Gore had chosen a running mate “whose positions are more similar to Governor Bush’s than to his own,” requiring Lieberman to start pretending to believe in the opposite of everything he had ever stood for, including suddenly voicing support for affirmative action, a performance that fooled no one.

Sure enough, after Gore lost, Lieberman and his friends proceeded to admit what everyone knew: that he had very obviously been lying to the American people for the preceding few months.

Bombs Away

Like most fiscal hawks, Lieberman is also an all-around hawk, unconcerned with government spending when it’s in the service of bombing some far-off country or another. It’s hard to find a war Lieberman hasn’t supported, from both wars against Iraq (he was one of only ten Senate Democrats to vote for the first), to the Balkans in the ’90s, to Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran, Yemen, an ambiguous commitment in Ukraine, and many others.

If you’re a fan of the bloated, largely unaccountable centralized security bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security, thank Lieberman: he not only came up with the idea but introduced the legislation that created it. He also supported the terrifying appointments of John Bolton under both Bush and Donald Trump, citing his “strong moral compass.”

After assuring people that “there is not one inch of difference between me and the commander-in-chief” on Iraq, Lieberman then began declaring that he was “the one candidate who can defeat George Bush,” warning that “a candidate who was opposed to the war against Saddam, who has called for the repeal of all of the Bush tax cuts” — meaning 2003-era Howard Dean — “could lead the Democrat Party into the political wilderness for a long time to come.” Voters disagreed, and Lieberman, who went into the 2004 Democratic primary as the best-known candidate, bowed out of the race when he couldn’t even win more delegates than ex-general Wesley Clark.

By 2006, it was little wonder Republicans from the White House on down successfully mobilized to save Lieberman’s political career from an antiwar Democrat, Ned Lamont, given Lieberman’s closeness to the GOP. The extent of the Republican establishment’s crucial role in his victory over the Democrat was only recently revealed by Lieberman, who disclosed in his memoir that Bush promised him, through then advisor Karl Rove, that “we will help you in any way we can” if he lost the primary against Lamont and ran for the general as an independent.

Sure enough, when Lieberman did this very thing, the GOP pulled support away from the Republican candidate, and fat-walleted GOP donors began flooding his campaign coffers with cash.

But Lieberman’s affinity with the Republican establishment was nothing new. As early as 1994, he was getting public praise from top Republicans like Bob Dole and close friend John McCain, and GOP-supporting business officials cluttered his campaign finance reports.

“I really like Joe Lieberman,” said Roger Stone, then simply a powerful Republican fixer, citing the fact he wasn’t a “knee-jerk liberal.” On the eve of the 2004 election, Lieberman compared Bush’s “record of strong, consistent support for Israel” with the “doubts” around Democrat John Kerry.

Lieberman pulled off a similar performance in 2008, when — now officially an independent, though still liable to identify himself as a Democrat — he attacked Barack Obama at the GOP convention and campaigned with GOP nominee McCain, both against the pleas of party members. Furious Democrats inexplicably let Lieberman keep his coveted chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs anyway, and he spent the rest of his time in the Senate once again watering down health care reform by constantly shifting goalposts, this time by making Democrats drop the public option, then refusing to support an expansion of Medicare. He also found time to support a balanced budget amendment, advocate for stripping Americans of citizenship, and suggest newspapers be criminally investigated.

It should surprise no one that Lieberman flirted with joining the Trump administration, given his frequent praise for the president. He was the only “Democrat” to attend Trump’s embassy-moving event in Jerusalem, something he had made possible through legislation twenty-three years earlier, when he helped pass the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act.

In light of this record, the most extraordinary thing about Lieberman’s life is that he has nevertheless managed to extract fawning praise from press outlets that, under Trump, came more and more to view Democratic Party disloyalty as a cardinal sin.

The Revolving Door

After leaving the Senate, Lieberman stayed true to form, spending his post-political years continuing to chase that great white whale of Washington warmongers: war with Iran. The chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran — a pressure group that, among other things, worked to derail Barack Obama’s successful nuclear deal with the country, one of the former Democratic president’s signature achievements — Lieberman continued to manufacture consent for a conflict with the country, including by attempting to use the Hamas attack of October 7 as a pretext, claiming that Iran’s leaders are “the commanders in chief of all the terrorist action in the Middle East.” You don’t need to have any illusions about the repressive and ultraconservative nature of Iran’s leadership to recognize that this accusation is as real as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

While eagerly waiting for another Middle Eastern apocalypse, Lieberman made as much money as he could by applying the age-old Washington tradition of spinning his history of political favors for corporations into working directly for them.

When he died, Lieberman was senior counsel at law firm Kasowitz Benson Torres, advising corporate clients on a range of public policy issues (including on homeland security, on which he chaired the Senate committee for many years) and representing them in investigations into white-collar crime. As the firm helpfully outlines, that kind of work involves helping companies “stave off investigations” and can involve crimes ranging from commercial bribery, price-fixing, and money laundering to insider trading, fraud, public corruption, and tax evasion.

Not unrelatedly, Lieberman also sat on the board of advisors for the American Council of Capital Formation (ACCF), a business trade group whose raison d’être is pushing the kind of neoliberal economics favored by Republicans — and which, coincidentally, fattens the profits of the kind of corporate clients Lieberman represented.

Fittingly, the ACCF was an implacable foe of Joe Biden’s largely defeated progressive agenda in 2021, but this wasn’t Lieberman’s only parting shot at what was meant to be his own party: he spent his last years orchestrating a third-party campaign for 2024 that Democrats furiously complained was most likely to get Trump reelected.

Even eighteen years later, Lieberman refused, when pressed on MSNBC, to say the Iraq War he backed had been a disaster. He did show the slightest hint of regret in another interview though, admitting that “maybe it was a step too far as you look back in terms of all the costs,” and that while Washington had gotten “pretty good at overthrowing Arab Muslim dictators,” policymakers “weren’t very informed” about “what to do next. . . . Hopefully we’ve learned from that.” Lieberman’s most recent comments about Iran suggest he certainly hadn’t.

“The good news, he is in the hands of the loving God. The bad news, John McCain is giving him an earful about how screwed up things are,” Lieberman’s friend and fellow hawk Lindsey Graham said upon news of his death. But if there really is an afterlife, it’s highly doubtful that it’s God’s hands either of them are in right now.