Senator Joe Lieberman enters the room, but I can’t see him—just a centipedelike scrum of black suits and Hasid hats that has formed around him and now moves, buzzing, toward the dais. We’re at a dinner being thrown at the Library of Congress by Agudath Israel of America, an assembly of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, and Lieberman is the star attraction. He’s come here to stump for John McCain, whose presidential endeavor the self-described independent Democrat improbably—make that unbelievably—endorsed last December. It’s mid-July now, and this is Lieberman’s fourth engagement of the day on his Republican friend’s behalf: He has spent the morning dispensing sound bites to CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, from a nook festooned with McCain campaign logos. (“Have you taken a pad and pencil and figured out how many times Barack Obama has flip-flopped on Iraq?” soft-served the Fox host. “It’s a real serious question,” intoned Lieberman gravely.)
The adoring entourage finally falls away, allowing the senator, short and slight, to take his seat on the dais. His never-changing coif—a mass of yellowish-gray hair combed backward in two bulky wings—retains a whiff of seventies cool; it would go well with a turtleneck. Right now there’s a blue-and-white yarmulke nestled atop it. “I’m under oath today as a surrogate for John McCain, to speak to you about this great American,” the senator begins. The speech is a collection of familiar notes on McCain’s heroism, experience, and resolve. At some point, Lieberman says McCain will be “ready to lead on day one,” a phrase firmly associated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He also swipes a flourish from Obama’s post-partisanship playbook: “Too many people describe themselves as Democrats or Republicans, but forget that we’re all Americans.” Lieberman is just getting to what, in this room, is the red-meat portion of his remarks—the promise of a tough policy on Iran and total unity with Israel—when something makes him abruptly pause. Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York, walks in. For objectivity’s sake, the dinner’s organizers have invited him to campaign for Obama.
“Oh, hi, Congressman,” says Lieberman softly. Weiner smiles. For a moment, the senator looks ambushed, perhaps even panicky, as if caught in flagrante delicto by an ex. Officially, his relationship with the Democratic Party is supposed to be an amiable trial separation, not a nasty, soap-opera breakup. “Congressman Weiner,” Lieberman says, regaining his voice. “We debate, but we’re friends.”
Nothing in Joe Lieberman’s long and placid career—a respected attorney general in Connecticut, a centrist Democrat on the Senate floor, Al Gore’s high-minded running mate—could have presaged his current status: an apostate to his party and perhaps the most hated politician in the United States. Some days it seems like McCain himself doesn’t trigger as much vitriol from the left. The rancor between Lieberman and the Democratic-party elders has been amassing since at least 2006, when the senator “refused to crawl away and die,” in the words of a friend, after losing the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary to the upstart Ned Lamont and instead ran, and beat Lamont, as an independent. Some place the beginning of the end still further back, in 2004, when Lieberman’s pro-war presidential bid found no purchase with the party’s base, then at the apex of its anyone-but-Bush fury. There is no question, however, when the end of the end arrived: on December 17, 2007, when the senator, still caucusing with Democrats, threw his support in the 2008 presidential race to John McCain. Now, with his opening-night speech at the GOP convention approaching and Election Day just over two months away, Lieberman is poised to become a major spoiler for the Democrats, delivering votes in at least one critical swing state (he’s been trolling Florida for Jewish support) and bolstering McCain’s centrist appeal nationwide. In a year when Congress is all but certain to tip to the left no matter who wins the White House, Lieberman’s decision to abandon his party and back McCain is, depending on whom you ask, a bold stroke of political principle or a suicidal act of revenge.
Politicians’ office photo collections are usually displays of high-powered friendships and bi-partisan bonhomie. The most prominent photo in Lieberman’s lair in the Hart Building is one of the senator with Ronald Reagan, inscribed in the Gipper’s frilly handwriting; around it are snaps of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Chris Dodd from happier days, and, amusingly, Prince Charles. There’s only one small picture of Lieberman and John McCain, but the office itself is a souvenir of sorts. It used to belong to McCain.
Bi-partisanship, at least from the Democratic side of the aisle, isn’t what it used to be for Lieberman. Ever since he threw his lot in with McCain, the party Establishment, which had made peace with the senator’s “independent” tag, has turned its back on him. On the record, the Washington types still tread carefully for fear of jeopardizing Lieberman’s support; though he’s nominally an independent, Lieberman still effectively functions as the 51st Democrat in the Senate. “It’s more of a ‘What the hell are you doing?’ thing,” says Joe Trippi, a party insider and Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign manager. Off the record, however, his Democratic colleagues are fuming. The standard complaint goes something like this: Leaving the party was bad. Backing McCain is worse. And attacking Obama, as Lieberman has recently begun doing, is an unforgivable sin. “He has no allegiance to the party he was once a part of,” says a consultant to two former Democratic presidential candidates. “He says he’s an independent, but if you speak at the GOP convention, if you endorse McCain for president, you’re a Republican, end of story.” The political press has been even less restrained. Salon.com labeled Lieberman an “ideological turncoat.” “Watching Joe Lieberman go around the bend … is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in politics,” wrote Jonathan Chait in The New Republic. And Wonkette, the Washington gossip blog, turned the hatred of the senator into something like a literary extreme sport: “It’s like two quarter-pound stools of alien space shit crashed into a toxic-waste dumpster in Stamford, Connecticut, fucked, and out came their mutilated, blood-soaked carcass of a baby rat-child, Senator Joseph Lieberman.”