Former US Senator Joe Lieberman dies at age 82: Media reports

A family statement said the four-term senator and vice presidential candidate died from complications after a fall.

Joe Lieberman
Former Senator Joe Lieberman speaks about the 2024 election at National Press Club in Washington on January 18, 2024 [Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo]

Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate during the hotly contested 2000 presidential election, has died at age 82 after suffering complications from a fall.

United States media announced his death on Tuesday afternoon, citing a family statement.

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One of the few high-profile independents in the US political sphere, Lieberman largely caucused with the Democratic Party during his four terms as a senator, representing the state of Connecticut.

But he identified as a centrist, and towards the end of his career, he embraced the No Labels movement, an organisation that shirks the traditional two-party system in favour of “common ground”.

Lieberman, however, was part of the Democratic presidential ticket in 2000, when Gore – then-vice president under Bill Clinton – raced for the White House himself.

When Gore chose Lieberman as his vice presidential candidate, the senator became the first Jewish running mate to represent a major party in the general elections.

The decision also catapulted Lieberman into one of the most divisive presidential races in recent history. The Gore-Lieberman ticket won the popular vote – but it lost the crucial Electoral College, the metric the US uses to decide who wins the presidency.

Instead, Republican George W Bush emerged victorious in that race, after the US Supreme Court ruled to end a recount effort in the pivotal swing state of Florida. An estimated 537 votes separated Bush and Gore in the state.

Lieberman’s career in national politics, however, came to an end in 2013, after he announced his retirement. For years, he had faced criticism for his hawkish approach to the US’s war in Iraq.

He has, however, continued to exercise influence as a political lobbyist, lawyer and advocate for groups like No Labels.

Standing in front of a crowd of supporters, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman wave.
Al Gore and Joe Lieberman rally together for the US presidency in Jackson, Tennessee, on October 25, 2000 [File: Stephan Savoia/AP Photo]

Senate career

Lieberman started his national political career in 1988, earning his first US Senate win with an unconventional ticket. He ran as a Democrat but was backed by prominent conservatives like pundit William F Buckley Jr.

A New York Times article that year captured the surprise at the odd-couple pairing: “Buckleys Are Backing A Democrat?”

But the alliance proved to be a fruitful one. Lieberman – who had previously served as a state senator – squeaked out a narrow win against three-time incumbent Republican Lowell Weicker Jr, who was considered the favourite to win.

Once in office, Lieberman continued to work both sides of the aisle. In 1990, for instance, he rallied bipartisan support for amendments to strengthen the Clean Air Act.

He also championed efforts to restrict violence in video games, pledging to develop a government rating system for the industry if it did not do so itself.

“Few parents would buy these games for their kids if they really knew what was in them,” Lieberman told reporters in 1993.

His advocacy helped forge the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulating arm of the gaming industry.

It was one of many moves Lieberman made in his attempts to represent the moral high ground in the US cultural discourse.

Another example came in 1998 when then-President Clinton found himself engulfed in long-running sexual assault allegations and questions of misconduct.

As details about Clinton’s extramarital relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky emerged, Lieberman condemned the president on the Senate floor in a high-profile speech. He is sometimes credited as the first prominent Democrat to speak out publicly against Clinton’s actions.

“Such behaviour is not only inappropriate,” Lieberman said of Clinton. “It is immoral, and it is harmful.”

He ultimately voted with his fellow Democrats in Clinton’s Senate trial, opting not to remove the president from office.

Joe Lieberman waves outside the White House.
Joe Lieberman leaves the White House after a visit on May 17, 2017 [File: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo]

A hawkish track record

Critics often cite Gore’s decision to choose Lieberman as his running mate in the 2000 presidential race as an effort to distance the Democratic ticket from the scandal of the Clinton years.

It was also an appeal to the political centre: Lieberman had backed several traditionally conservative issues, including by supporting school voucher programmes, something many Democrats feared would imperil funds for public schools.

Though the Gore-Lieberman ticket ultimately failed to win the presidency in 2000, Lieberman still managed to hang onto his Senate seat that year: Connecticut law allowed him to run in both races at the same time.

But the attacks on September 11, 2001, would highlight Lieberman’s track record for hawkishness – something that would ultimately lead to his political decline.

Lieberman had previously shown a hawkish streak: In 1991, he co-sponsored a bill that authorised the use of military force in the Gulf War. He also backed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which supported efforts to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He was one of only two Senate Democrats to do so.

So when the administration of Republican President Bush announced its intention to invade Iraq in 2003, as part of his post 9/11 “war on terror”, Lieberman was a vocal supporter.

In an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation, he echoed talking points that Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction, and therefore the invasion was necessary.

“We know he had enormous quantities that were never accounted for. And that’s why we’ve got to continue to look for them,” Lieberman said.

Those claims, however, were later shown to come from flawed or exaggerated intelligence reports.

Lieberman also helmed efforts to create the Department of Homeland Security, another part of the US’s response to the 9/11 attacks. Its mission was to “secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks”, but critics warned it would violate civil rights protections and other civilian privacy measures.

Speaking to the New York Times in 2005, Lieberman acknowledged that his stance on the 2003 Iraq invasion had sown division in the Democratic Party.

“Some Democrats said I was being a traitor,” he told the newspaper, though he credited some of the backlash to the divisiveness of party politics.

Lieberman was also a staunch supporter of Israel, sponsoring a resolution in 2002 “expressing solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism”.

Joe Lieberman sits on a No Labels panel with two other people under the slogan "Fighting for freedom to choose a president. No Labels."
Joe Lieberman speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2024 [File: Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo]

Political decline

Lieberman briefly jumped into the 2004 presidential race, running in the Democratic Party primaries in the hopes of unseating the Republican Bush.

The “American dream is in jeopardy”, he said as he announced his presidential campaign. He added that US ideals were “threatened by hate-filled terrorists and tyrants from abroad”, as well as a limp economy.

But his campaign quickly sputtered, with poor showings in early-voting states like New Hampshire. Lieberman departed the race in February 2004.

Two years later, in 2006, Lieberman faced defeat in the Democratic primary as he sought reelection to the US Senate. He lost the party vote in Connecticut to businessman Ned Lamont, who ran on an antiwar platform.

Undeterred by his primary loss, Lieberman continued his campaign as an independent, facing Lamont again in the general election. That vote, he won, propelling him to his final term as senator.

Just as he had in his early years, Lieberman sought both Republican and Democratic support to secure his victory.

But facing the prospect of another bruising campaign season in 2012, Lieberman announced his retirement instead.

“I know that some people have said that if I ran for reelection, it would be a difficult campaign for me. But what else is new? It probably would be,” he admitted in his 2011 retirement speech. But he added that, in many of his previous elections, the odds were stacked against him.

“With a lot of help from Independents, Democrats and Republicans – including many of you here today – in each case, I did win.”

Lieberman’s bipartisan bona fides made him briefly a candidate to join Republican Senator John McCain in his bid for the presidency in 2008. But conservative strategists prevailed upon McCain to choose Republican Governor Sarah Palin instead.

Lieberman later endorsed McCain in that presidential election, marking a decisive break with the Democratic Party. McCain ultimately lost to Barack Obama, however.

Despite his diminished sway in the Democratic Party, Lieberman continued to be a figure in national politics, even after his retirement from the Senate. As part of his work, he continued to push for centrism – and a move away from partisan divides.

In working with the No Labels movement ahead of the 2024 presidential election, Lieberman confronted the possibility of going head-to-head with his former Senate colleague: President Joe Biden. The Democratic president is seeking reelection this November.

“I have a lot of respect and a lot of affection for Joe Biden,” Lieberman told The Associated Press in 2023. “But I think the country and particularly young people are asking for a third choice.”

Source: Al Jazeera