Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut spoke with NPR a day after announcing he will not seek re-election in 2012, when his fourth term expires. Following is a transcript of the interview. It has been edited for clarity.
Liz Halloran: You have said in the past that the Democratic Party was moving away from you. What were the most telling and early signs of that — was there a revelatory moment?
Sen. Joe Lieberman: That's a really interesting question. Most people would think that my answer would be when I saw the Democratic Party moving away from me was about the Iraq war after 2003. But the truth is, I felt it early on in my time in the Senate, during the first Gulf War, when I was among a minority of Democrats who supported President Bush in his attempt to push the invading Iraqi armies out of Kuwait. And I thought something had changed. I thought part of it was philosophical, and part of it was just plain partisan politics. Particularly on national security issues, this didn't seem to me, as time went on, to be like the party of John F. Kennedy, who inspired me into politics. There were other breaks, but that was the first and most unsettling to me.
You have been characterized as a moderate by some, as an opportunist by your critics. That being said, what are the prospects going forward for moderates in Congress?
The question of the future for moderates has to be divided between their prospects in the United States Senate and their prospects in American politics. And here's what I mean: Moderates play an increasingly important role in the United States Senate, because without moderates in both parties, you don't have the bridge builders to bring the parties together to get anything done.
The problem is that moderates increasingly have trouble getting re-nominated by their parties back home. And it's both parties. I had my difficulties in 2006, but Lisa Murkowski lost her Republican nomination in Alaska. Bob Bennett, who always looked like a conservative Republican to me, wasn't deemed conservative enough by the Republican Party back home [in Utah]. He was denied renomination just because he had participated in a few bipartisan efforts. Moderates are needed more than ever in Washington. But in recent years, they've been having a harder-than-ever time getting elected back home.
According to most measures, in the past few years you have voted with liberals 50 to 60 percent of the time, and conservatives 40 to 50 percent of the time — joining liberals on key votes including CAFE [fuel efficiency] standards, greenhouse gas caps, giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship and prosecuting hate crimes. But you're against withdrawing troops [from Iraq and Afghanistan] and establishing a public health insurance option. How would you characterize yourself at this moment? What are the chances you'll caucus with the Republicans?
I'm in the Democratic caucus, though I am an independent. There's no reason I would change over the next two years that I can foresee. Secondly, I characterize myself as independent-minded. Like most Americans, I don't feel that I have to decide every issue based on a party-line orthodoxy. Seems to me most Americans look at every issue separately and decide what they think makes most sense. And yet somehow in politics, both parties expect elected officials to just toe the party line. And why should we?
Part of the problem in American politics today is that the increasing partisanship in office — in Washington, particularly — makes the average American feel totally distant from his government because he doesn't approach politics that way. Most people in our country are independent-minded, and they're sick of all the partisanship and ideological rigidity. I think that was part of the message from November's election, even though the beneficiaries were Republicans because they were out of power. I think if the Republicans act in a way that's too partisan and ideologically rigid right now, the voters are going to be as upset with them as they were with Democrats last November. Hopefully, the message of the election last November was heard. I'd certainly say that the evidence in the lame-duck session was encouraging, both from President Obama, and from Democrats and Republicans working across party lines to get significant things done.
Speaking of lame ducks, legislatively it would seem that your most influential days are behind you — with a stronger Republican minority in the Senate and not enough support to push through climate change and immigration overhaul legislation, which you said you'd still like to work toward. Realistically, where can you make a difference before your term is over?
I don't think, from my experience, that individual senators are ever lame ducks. Sometimes sessions of the Senate may be lame duck. There are only 100 of us, and every one counts. And the closer the party split is, as it is now, roughly 53-47, the more every senator counts, the more there's going to need to be bipartisan agreements to get to the 60 votes to break filibusters to make big things happen.
Can you identify one or two areas where you think can make a difference?
Because of my priorities and my service, and the fact that I'm chairman of the Homeland Security Committee of the Senate and the second-ranking Democrat of the Armed Services [Committee], security will always be my top priority. But if you go beyond that to specific issues, I want to be involved in a bipartisan success story to adopt a plan to methodically reduce our national deficit and debt in the years ahead. That's No. 1. The second is energy independence. I fought real hard for the climate change legislation last year. It didn't work. It's not going to pass in as comprehensive a form, cap and trade, as we wanted last year. I think we can put together a bipartisan group to support alternative clean energy, and energy independence that will reduce carbon pollution. So it won't be as big a step against climate change, but it will be something significant.
How did you come to terms with the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision that cost you the vice presidency? I understand it was devastating, but was there something that led you to acceptance?
No. I will tell you that I've never really come to terms with the decision in Bush v. Gore. I thought it was just a bad decision, a wrong decision from a legal point of view.
Do you think about it every day?
Life goes on. This happens to be the way I was raised — the way a lot of us were raised. Life is not about yesterday; it's about today and tomorrow. Whenever I go back to it and think about 2000, I'm extremely grateful to Al Gore for the historic opportunity he gave me, and it was totally his decision. I'm proud of the campaign he and I ran. And I'll forever be really angry about the Supreme Court decision and the way it ended. You know, you can't live in the past. The day after Al and I conceded, I went right back to my Senate office in the morning and went back to work.
Do you have any regrets that you concurrently ran for the Senate in 2000?
Oh, God, no. I'm so grateful that I did, because I love service in the Senate, and I didn't want it to end if for some reason we didn't win the national election.
You couldn't get traction in the 2004 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and in 2006, you suffered a bitter defeat when Connecticut Democrats in a primary rejected you for a well-financed anti-war candidate. You went on to win in the general election, obviously, as an independent. How much did that repudiation by your party figure into your endorsement of Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential race?
It did not figure into my endorsement of Sen. McCain as an act of revenge. Let me be very clear about this. Losing the primary in 2006 in my own party was painful. Even though, I can tell you, as much as a year before, my political consultants warned me that I would probably lose the primary and should think about running as an independent. But I had been a lifelong Democrat, and I refused to leave the party. Losing the primary in 2006 was painful. Winning the general election in 2006 was probably the most gratifying, satisfying day, night of my political career. So I didn't emerge from that election angry. I emerged from that election feeling totally liberated politically as an independent.
People say, "Why did you support John McCain for president?" I said, actually, truthfully, that he was the only candidate for president in either party who asked for my support. But there's more to it than that. John and I are very close friends, and there is a role for friendship in politics as in life. Secondly, I felt at that time that he was just plain the best prepared to be the president we needed at that time. Enjoying the independence I had, as an independent, I did what I thought was best for the country at the time.
Even people who are loyal to you and respect you have characterized your speech at the 2008 GOP presidential convention as a low point and were dismayed by some comments you made about then-candidate Obama — that "eloquence is no substitute for a record," for example — and for failing to push back on questions about whether Obama was a Muslim or a Marxist. Do you regret any of that, and do you think it may have undermined your own calls for civility?
Listen, when John asked me if I would speak at the convention, I figured, look, I've been speaking for him all over the country, I'd be a hypocrite if I don't speak for him at the convention and try to explain why I really thought that my comments about Barack Obama, who I had great regard and affection for at that time. We were close and are again.
But when he first came into the Senate — incidentally, I believe that I went out of my way to discredit any of the thought that he was a Muslim at that time, because he isn't and it didn't make any sense. The good news is that after Sen. Obama was elected President Obama, he first did something very big and gracious, which is he urged Sen. [Harry] Reid and the Democratic caucus not to take away my seniority or my chairmanship as a result of my support of John McCain. And I've worked very closely with President Obama over these two years on a host of different matters, and I got a very gracious call from him the other night when I had decided not to run, and we're going to work together in the years ahead as well.
Just one other thing on the convention speech. I know that you don't not understand what that represented to Democrats. They knew that you'd endorsed John McCain but your presence on the stand —
I totally understand why Democrats were unhappy that I was at the Republican convention speaking for Sen. McCain. Look, they were unhappy that I endorsed John McCain, so it was just a deeper level of unhappiness. But remember, I was an independent and I'd been elected as an independent, so I was exercising my rights as an independent to support my friend, who I happen to think was the best prepared to be the president that we needed at that time. But sure, I understand the anger of the Democrats about that step, and I don't have any bad feelings in response to that anger.
Going back to the 2000 election, which obviously set the stage for a decade of radical change in this county, which you've been a part of: Let's talk about Ralph Nader and your running mate, Al Gore, who in 2004 bitterly disappointed you when he endorsed your rival, Howard Dean. Have you and Nader ever spoken privately about his run in 2000, which some say figured in your defeat? Have you and former Vice President Gore ever spoken about his Dean endorsement — or anything else for that matter?
Ralph Nader and I used to see each other a lot back when I was attorney general [in Connecticut] and even in my early years in the Senate, and I have a very active consumer protection record, but I have not talked to him to the best of my recollection since 2000, and I'm pretty sure my recollection is correct.
On the question of Al Gore: We've kept in touch. Of course I was disappointed when he endorsed Howard Dean in 2004, but that disappointment really has faded, and what comes back to me, and we're friends, he put out a wonderfully gracious statement after I made my announcement that I wasn't running again. And, you know, we talked together in the last couple of years about an effort to do something about climate change and work together on that, and I do want to come back.
His decision to ask me to be his running mate was a historic decision in the sense that he gave me the honor to be the first Jewish American to be nominated for national office. And it not only put his confidence in me — it put his confidence in the American people. And the fact is that we did get a half-million more votes than the Bush-Cheney ticket, and I think it says again what a wonderful, open country this is. I'll never forget what Jesse Jackson said to me on the day that I got selected by Al Gore: He said, "You know, in America, when a barrier breaks for one group, the doors of opportunity are opened wider for everyone else." Barack Obama actually said to me one day that he thought that the run that I made for vice president in 2000 really helped open the doors for him in 2008.
And none of that would have happened unless Al Gore had the confidence to give me that opportunity. So I will forever be grateful to Al Gore. I certainly consider him, and I believe he considers me, a good friend.
I recall your happy ride as the first American Jew on a major party ticket in 2000, and also remember when Democrats in your home state booed you at an annual dinner. What would you say were your personal highs and lows in the Senate?
The moment that I was nominated for vice president was an extraordinary high point. Obviously it ended in the frustration of the Supreme Court decision.
In a very different way, the election night in 2006 in November when I ran as an independent was probably the most gratifying political, purely political moment of my career. Not only because I won after I lost the primaries, but because I knew that most of the people in the state did not agree with me on the Iraq war, but they still voted for me. I think because they felt I was obviously not taking the position I was on Iraq because of political positions, I must have believed in it, and secondly because they believed I was doing a good job overall. And to me that's what leadership is supposed to be about and what any elected official really dreams of having his constituents respond to. And personally I would say election night of 2006 was probably the most thrilling and satisfying moment in my political career, and I've had a lot of great ones.
In your estimation, what has been your greatest legislative success in the Senate? And, conversely, your biggest disappointment?
One of the longest, most complicated legislative battles I've been involved in was the one to adopt the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to reform our national security organizations after 9/11, and when we succeeded in that, that was a moment of real triumph and satisfaction.
The other one really was the recent one, and it all came together for a just cause, and it was the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" [the ban on openly gay Americans in the military], which I've been against since it was adopted in '93. I voted against it. To me, it was not only important within itself — in other words, within the fact of what we were repealing — but it made a larger cultural statement about the openness and fairness of American society, so that was a thrilling moment for me.
It's hard not to say that probably one of the biggest disappointments I've had was the failure of Congress and the federal government to take a leadership role in fighting climate change, which I think is a real and present danger to the United States and the entire world.
Speaking of don't ask, don't tell, do you think that put you in better stead with Democrats back home, or were the Iraq and McCain issues, and your key opposition to a public health insurance option, too much to overcome?
I really don't know. I know I got a lot of positive reaction after the repeal of don't ask, don't tell from people who had not been too positive for a period of time, and maybe it just reminded them of the complexity of my own policy and personal profile. To me, there was nothing inconsistent with being for the Iraq war and against don't ask, don't tell or against climate change. To me, each subject leads me to a point to do what I thought was the best thing to do, and that's what I've tried to do.
I got a kick out of the fact that there has been a certain amount of speculation here that I had taken this leadership role for the repeal of don't ask, don't tell so I could be better suited to run for re-election. I knew at that time that I had decided not to run for re-election. It was actually a thrill that I was able to get that accomplished knowing that as a lead-in to the announcement that I made yesterday.
The Washington Post reported this week that you were "appalled" at McCain's choice of Sarah Palin for a running mate. Is that true?
Not really. Look, it was John's choice. Whatever feelings I had or have, I'm going to keep, out of respect to my friend John McCain, within myself.
There has been a lot of praise for your service, including from President Obama, and there has also been a lot of vitriol from the left over your statement that if you had to do it over, you'd go to Iraq again. And this morning on MSNBC, you said that there was evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
I should not have been surprised from the right-left combination of Pat Buchanan and Arianna Huffington [both panelists on MSNBC with Lieberman] would raise that issue. These are tough questions. But to me, Saddam Hussein was a brutally repressive dictator, an enemy of the U.S., and he clearly, according to the report I cited, had in place the assets and expertise to develop weapons of mass destruction, and a clear intention — and this is stated in the 9/11 report — to break out of the sanctions and develop weapons of mass destruction. I know, of course, that no weapons of mass destruction were found, and we know he had some chemical and biological [weapons] earlier. It certainly appears now that he destroyed them after the American victory in the Gulf War of 1991. But here's what I think about when I answer the question about would I do it again: It took longer, it cost more in lives than any of us hoped or thought it would, but we had a brutally repressive anti-American dictator there who would have, if he was still there, in my opinion, be developing weapons of mass destruction much like the Iranians. Instead, we have a government which, though is imperfect, was Democratically elected, is self-governing, is anti-terrorist and pro-American. It is probably the most broadly elected representative government in the Arab world today.
I always think, and this is the tough question: I've been at funerals for soldiers from Connecticut that were killed in Iraq, and the repeated refrain from most of their family members was, please do not act in a way that means our loved one died in vain. And I feel that when we look at Iraq today, I can say to them, as painful as it is, that the situation there in Iraq is a world better than it was and gives us hope for the entire Middle East.
Looking back at senators who have served and are now gone, who would you compare yourself to?
I'll leave it to others to make that judgment. I grew up with a religious ethic where the rabbis said, you know, when you get to the gates of heaven, they're not going to ask you why you weren't as good as Moses — they'll ask you did you do as good as Joe Lieberman could?