Joe Lieberman, Democratic Senator And Vice Presidential Candidate, Dead At 82

Lieberman broke with the party over his Iraq War support and later played key roles in killing a public health insurance option and repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman died Wednesday. He was 82.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman died Wednesday. He was 82.
Lauren Victoria Burke/Associated Press

Joe Lieberman, the former U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee whose conservative views on foreign policy and steadfast support for the Iraq War eventually led to his estrangement from the party, died Wednesday in New York City, his family said. He was 82.

The cause was complications after a fall.

“His beloved wife, Hadassah, and members of his family were with him as he passed,” his family said. “Senator Lieberman’s love of God, his family, and America endured throughout his life of service in the public interest.”

The speed of Lieberman’s partisan shift from 2000, when he became the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket for the presidency as Al Gore’s running mate, to 2008, when he endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president, was one of the major political stories of the first decade of the 21st century and one of the first signs the Democratic Party would move beyond its 1990s-era centrism.

Lieberman was a steadfast supporter of gay rights, abortion rights and environmental issues, including crafting a major bipartisan attempt to fight climate change. But he was also the first major Democrat to rebuke then-President Bill Clinton in 1998 over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and would later play a leading role in killing a public health insurance option as Congress debated the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

“In an era of political carbon copies, Joe Lieberman was a singularity,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who now holds Lieberman’s seat, wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “One of one. He fought and won for what he believed was right and for the state he adored.”

The direct cause of Lieberman’s break with the Democratic Party, however, was his unflinching support for George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Though many congressional Democrats initially supported the war, Lieberman continued to do so even as the number of American troops and Iraqi civilian deaths climbed drastically and none of the alleged weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

“I think the world is a lot better off, not withstanding all the problems in Iraq,” Lieberman told MSNBC in 2015, saying he did not regret his support for the war.

He long continued to insist Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. More than 100,000 civilians and nearly 4,500 U.S. military members died in the war.

In 2006, he faced a primary challenge from Ned Lamont, a cable industry executive who is now Connecticut’s governor. Lamont’s run was focused almost entirely on Lieberman’s support for the war, and he defeated Lieberman by a 10,000-vote margin in the primary. Lieberman instead ran for the seat on the “Connecticut for Lieberman” ticket and won with heavy backing from Republicans, including the endorsements of Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

After his victory, Lieberman served as an “independent Democrat” and continued acting as a member of the Democratic caucus, though he ceased attending party lunches after his endorsement of McCain at the 2008 Republican National Convention. The endorsement was based on his and McCain’s longstanding friendship, which was in turn built around their shared hawkish views on foreign policy.

He, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were often referred to as the “three amigos” for their unified stances on the need for strong national defense and American interventionism abroad.

“The good news, he is in the hands of a loving God,” Graham wrote in a statement following Lieberman’s death. “The bad news, John McCain is giving him an earful about how screwed up things are.”

In his final years in the Senate, Lieberman’s biggest impact came from his work to kill a public health insurance option, a position that happened to benefit the large insurance companies headquartered in his state.

In the fall of 2009, as Senate leaders were working feverishly to put together the legislation that eventually became the Affordable Care Act, Lieberman announced that he would not support any bill that contained a so-called public option ― that is, a government-run insurance program that would operate alongside private insurers, offering an alternative for people who wanted it. Lieberman said it would introduce too much government control, distorting the insurance market, and would ultimately require additional taxpayer subsidies to maintain its finances.

Lieberman was not the only Democrat who wanted to kill the public option. But he was the most vocal and took the lead in opposition. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was Senate majority leader at the time, created a working group to negotiate with Lieberman, and at one point he thought they had reached an agreement on an alternative that would have allowed some people to enroll in Medicare starting at age 55. But Lieberman later announced he wouldn’t support that idea, either.

Reid (who died in 2021) was furious, as were progressives who believed that Lieberman’s opposition had a lot to do with the large insurance industry presence in Connecticut. Lieberman, who after getting his concession voted yes on the Affordable Care Act, later said Reid had misconstrued Lieberman’s position.

Lieberman played a major role in two significant pieces of legislation: He was one of the first senators to propose the creation of a Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which became a reality in 2002 after George W. Bush embraced it.

He also wrote legislation with Collins to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy barring gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military. President Barack Obama signed the legislation in December 2010.

“We’ve righted a wrong,” Lieberman said after a Senate vote on the measure. “Today, we’ve done justice.”

Lieberman was born in Connecticut in 1942; his father ran a liquor store. As a student at Yale, he befriended conservative icon William F. Buckley, who would later endorse his initial run for Senate and his 2006 run as an independent. He also attended Yale Law and had student deferments from the Vietnam War draft. During his time at Yale, he was active in the civil rights movement and traveled to Mississippi to help hold mock elections at churches.

He would serve for a decade in the Connecticut state legislature and made a failed run for Congress in 1980 before winning election as the state’s attorney general in 1982 and then moving up to the Senate with a 1990 win over the liberal Republican Lowell Weicker.

Lieberman served four terms as a senator for Connecticut and was the first major Democrat to turn against Clinton after revelations of his extramarital affair with Lewinsky. He called the episode “not just inappropriate” but “immoral,” although he later joined all other Democrats in the Senate to vote against removing Clinton from office.

“It is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family — particularly to our children — which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture,” Lieberman said in a speech in the Senate at the time.

Lieberman had a censorious attitude toward the entertainment industry, especially video games. He led hearings in 1993 and 1994 on violence in games, and sought to bar the sale of violent games to children. His actions ultimately spurred the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Bureau, which assigns ratings to games, similar to what the Motion Picture Association of America does for movies.

He was tapped as Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election, becoming the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket for a major party. The pair waged a campaign based on integrity to distance themselves from the Clinton administration, in which Gore served as vice president. Lieberman regularly touted his Jewish faith, and would later write a book extolling the virtues of keeping the sabbath.

Gore and Lieberman ultimately lost the election to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney after a battle over recounting Florida votes was decided in Bush’s favor by the Supreme Court.

In 2004, he made his own ill-fated bid for the presidency, memorably declaring his fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary was actually “a three-way split decision for third place.”

Lieberman reemerged in 2023 as a leader of No Labels, which is seeking ― so far unsuccessfully ― to draft a centrist presidential candidate. He served as a spokesperson for the group, which has been under fire from Democrats for threatening to throw the 2024 election to Republican Donald Trump.

But, he told CNN, if it came down to President Joe Biden and Trump, he knew what side he was on.

“Much as I feel like Joe Biden has moved too far to the left,” he said, “if we don’t run the ticket, the choice between Trump and Biden for me personally is easy … I will enthusiastically support Biden.”

Jonathan Cohn contributed reporting.

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