Democrats Don’t Want to Give Joe Lieberman the Chance to Surrender to Another GOP President

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Lieberman did not exactly show tough-minded independence toward the last Republican president. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As word got out that former senator Joe Lieberman had become the front-runner for the post of FBI director, Republican senator John Cornyn, who was once a prospect for the gig until he disclaimed interest, suggested the onetime Democrat/independent/McCain-for-president enthusiast might be able to attract all 100 Senate votes.

It seems Cornyn had not talked to any Democrats.

As Politico reports today, Senate Democrats are lining up against Lieberman pretty solidly.

In some cases, Lieberman’s solid reputation as the epitome of “centrist” heresy against everything progressives hold dear is a factor:

[M]any liberals flat out don’t like Lieberman. In an interview, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) fumed about Lieberman’s efforts to undercut more generous Medicare benefits in Obamacare and his relative closeness to Trump. After a monologue on Lieberman’s faults, Brown ended by telling a reporter: “That’s all on the record.”

Lieberman’s personal veto of the “Medicare buy-in” option for people over 55 when Obamacare was being put together is indeed a bad memory for many Democrats, though not as raw a grievance as his avid from-the-get-go-to-the-end support for the Iraq War or his endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. But as Politico notes, even red-state Democrats who might normally identify with Lieberman as dissenters against liberal orthodoxy, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, aren’t feeling any Joe-mentum, either.

Part of that is undoubtedly Lieberman’s lack of qualifications for the position at a time when the FBI’s current and former personnel are by all accounts angry at the “political” sacking of James Comey. Lieberman’s last relevant experience was his service as Connecticut attorney general more than a quarter-century ago (he left the job to enter the Senate in 1989). At the age of 75, he is an unlikely candidate for on-the-job training at the bureau.

But the even bigger problem for Democrats — and really, for anyone who’s not in the tank for Donald J. Trump — is the abundant evidence that Lieberman is temperamentally unsuited for a position that requires tough-minded independence from the man who appointed him.

Lieberman, to put it bluntly, showed a weakness for the last Republican president. In 2002 he became perhaps the country’s most avid supporter of George W. Bush’s campaign to obtain the least restrictive authorization possible to go to war in Iraq. He also caved to Republicans in a debate over labor rights for employess in the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Jeffrey Toobin memorably chronicled Lieberman’s fecklessness in this situation:

Lieberman couldn’t bring himself to question the President’s motives, because he doesn’t like visceral politics

Intentionally or not, Lieberman spent the fall doing the Republicans’ bidding. His stature gave the President’s policy on Iraq the shimmer of bipartisanship; his leadership on homeland security led to a political debacle and policy failure for the Democrats… I asked him whether he was uncomfortable serving simultaneously as a punching bag and a cheerleader for the Bush White House. “It’s odd,” he said without emotion. “It happens in politics.”

A “punching bag and cheerleader.” No wonder George W. Bush planted a big kiss on Lieberman just prior to his 2005 State of the Union address, which became a major symbol of his supine collaboration with the Republican president during Ned Lamont’s successful primary challenge in 2006. (Lieberman lost the primary, but went on to win in November as an independent.)

Even Democrats who were sympathetic to Lieberman’s policy impulses regularly cringed at his cheerful cluelessness in dealing with an increasingly extreme Republican Party during the 2000s, capped by his willingness to commit the political equivalent of the unforgivable Sin Against the Holy Ghost — his endorsement of the GOP’s presidential candidate in 2008.

So no, Democratic senators are not going to intone “former colleague” and happily line up to send this genial septuagenarian off to one of the most difficult jobs in America.

In Benjamin Wittes’s account at Lawfareblog of his conversations with James Comey, he recounts in some detail the former director’s intense discomfort at Donald Trump’s efforts to create a buddy-buddy relationship that threatened his strict independence, epitomized by his resistance to an attempted Trump hug on the day of the inauguration.

It’s hard to imagine the Joe Lieberman of “The Kiss” rejecting Trump’s affection, or denying him anything else he really wants. And that’s just disqualifying to most Democrats.

You can expect Trump and his congressional allies to move forward with Lieberman’s name even knowing he’s poison to Senate Democrats, if only so they can use this as a data point for their claim that the Democratic Party is “moving to the left.” Perhaps Lieberman will smell the coffee, and will not end his career by letting the GOP use him one more time.

Senate Democrats Worry Lieberman Will Surrender Again to GOP