Grant Joe Lieberman this: He hasn’t needed a TLC reality show to get liberals fuming. From his support of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy to his endorsement of John McCain’s presidential campaign, the Connecticut senator has done a lot to earn his “Traitor Joe” nickname. After the midterms, progressive Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, recalling Lieberman’s obstructionism on health-care reform, ascribed to the independent Democrat almost superhuman destructive powers, in a post titled “How Joe Lieberman Helped the Democrats Lose the Election.”
Which is why it’s a bit shocking that as liberals brace for the arrival of a GOP House, Lieberman is leading the charge for the lame-duck Congress to take care of one pressing piece of Obama’s unfinished business: the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” With shellacked Democrats seemingly ready to call it a year, Lieberman issued a public call to work all through December—including “the eighth day of Hanukkah,” if necessary—to make that happen.
Lieberman has pushed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to hold a vote that could allow the defense-authorization bill, which contains the DADT repeal, to go to the Senate floor, and to then schedule two weeks of debate, complete with an open amendment process, as some GOPers have demanded. More important, he’s leveraging his ties to various Republican senators—the very thing some liberals hate about him—to wangle the 60 votes the bill needs to move forward. His old pal McCain, who once indicated he might support a repeal but is now vowing a filibuster, looks like a lost cause. But Lieberman is lobbying other Republicans—including Dick Lugar, Lisa Murkowski, and George Voinovich—to drop their objections should Reid meet their conditions. “We have to find a handful of Republican senators,” explains Servicemembers Legal Defense Network’s Aubrey Sarvis. “That’s where I think Senator Lieberman is an important bridge.”
According to Lieberman’s supporters, his motives are straightforward. He’s been a stalwart opponent of DADT, voting no when Bill Clinton first proposed it in 1993 and sponsoring the current repeal measure. His position stems from both his commitment to civil rights and (more irony for liberals!) his hawkishness on foreign policy. “Senator Lieberman doesn’t think it makes sense to be kicking out gays and lesbians who want to serve their country when we’ve been fighting two wars for almost a decade,” says Sarvis.
But Lieberman could also be looking ahead to 2012, when he’s up for reelection. Ever since losing the Democratic primary in 2006, he’s been a man without a party. Well, he actually had one—Connecticut for Lieberman—but it’s not guaranteed a ballot spot in 2012. Even if Lieberman clears that hurdle, another independent run could face unfavorable math, considering that the Connecticut GOP is intent on fielding a potent candidate this time around; though there’s speculation Lieberman might try to claim the GOP nomination for himself, the state party has been decidely cool on that possibility. Indeed, Lieberman’s only route to victory may be to throw himself on the mercies of the Democratic-primary voters who rejected him before.
As the man who got DADT repealed, Lieberman might persuade those voters to forgive his past transgressions. Of course, that would mean actually getting DADT repealed, which, at this late date, remains a long shot. Though in the past he hasn’t liked to rush things, once complaining that Obama’s health-care plan was “trying to do too much at once,” Lieberman seems eager to plow ahead. On November 30, the Pentagon will release a report expected to endorse gays’ serving in the military. After that, the Senate has three weeks to act before it adjourns for the year. The clock is ticking for Lieberman, in more ways than one.