What the Lieberman Endorsement Means — For Him It's uncertain if "independent Democrat" Sen. Joe Lieberman's endorsement of GOP presidential candidate John McCain will help the Arizona senator. It's even more unclear what the endorsement means for Lieberman's relationships with Democrats.
NPR logo What the Lieberman Endorsement Means — For Him

What the Lieberman Endorsement Means — For Him

Sen. Joe Lieberman, who calls himself an independent Democrat, has endorsed GOP presidential candidate John McCain (left). Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Lieberman, who calls himself an independent Democrat, has endorsed GOP presidential candidate John McCain (left).

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Video: Caucus Calculus
Video by John Poole, NPR

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Connecticut Democrats were torn in 2006 whether Sen. Joe Lieberman was a loyal party member ... hide caption

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... or a party sellout ... hide caption

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Regardless, he was re-elected by a comfortable margin. hide caption

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House Democrats punished Mississippi's John Bell Williams and South Carolina's Albert Watson for backing Barry Goldwater in 1964. Watson promptly bolted to the GOP, and Williams was elected governor in a landslide. hide caption

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Twenty-two years ago today, Ted Kennedy removes himself from the 1988 presidential race. hide caption

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The funeral notices written for Sen. John McCain's presidential candidacy may have been premature. Left for dead just a few months ago, there seems to be a zip in his step, if not in Iowa, then certainly in New Hampshire, where polls show him contending for at least second place. Yes, he has no money, and yes, there are many conservatives who still can't stand the sight of him. But there is an element of principle and dignity in what he has to say, and in an increasing number of Republican debates, his rivals for the nomination find themselves praising or agreeing with the Arizona senator on one issue or another.

It's been a good week for McCain. His earlier endorsement by the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire was followed in the past few days with endorsements from The Des Moines Register, The Boston Globe and, most interestingly, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee who was re-elected last year as an independent and who calls himself an independent Democrat. It remains to be seen if Lieberman's endorsement will help McCain with the independent voters in New Hampshire that put him over the top in the primary against George W. Bush eight years ago. More uncertain is what the endorsement means for Lieberman himself.

There is no love lost between Joe Lieberman and the Democrats, who for the most part despise his hawkish views on Iraq (and Iran) and who punished him for his ideological apostasies in the Connecticut Democratic primary in 2006 by denying him renomination and voting instead for anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. Lamont beat Lieberman by 10,000 votes in the primary, 52 percent to 48 percent. Many of Lieberman's Democratic colleagues in the Senate endorsed Lamont. But Lieberman then ran as an independent and, benefiting from an extraordinarily weak GOP nominee — and getting the endorsements of Republicans such as McCain — won a fourth term rather convincingly.

One popular guessing game that lingered as the Democrats were preparing to take over the new Congress this year was what party Lieberman would align himself with. Would he stay with the Dems, as he insisted he would, and become the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee? Or would he bolt to the GOP, which he refused to rule out?

The result of last year's midterm elections gave Democrats 49 votes in the Senate and left the Republicans with 49. Vermont's Bernie Sanders, an independent, voted to organize the Senate for the Democrats, to no surprise. That was 50 for the Dems. But if Lieberman picked the Republicans, then it would be a 50-50 tie, with Vice President Cheney breaking the tie in favor of the GOP. Lieberman could, in effect, do for the Republicans what Jim Jeffords of Vermont did for the Democrats in 2001, when he defected from the GOP and gave the Dems the majority. Lieberman stayed with the Democrats, but for a while anyway, he was seen as the most important lawmaker, or kingmaker, in Washington.

On many, if not most, issues, Lieberman is a true-blue Democrat. He has a solid pro-labor, pro-choice, pro-civil rights voting record. But he refuses to break with President Bush on the war, and that's what has left him estranged from most other Senate Democrats.

Within hours of Lieberman's endorsement of McCain, this e-mail question arrived from Jim Terr of Santa Fe, N.M.: "Will his Democratic colleagues continue to put up with him because he votes often enough as a Democrat? Or might they kick him out of the party and out of the caucus?"

An interesting question. While I've always wondered about the relationships Lieberman has had with some of his less compromising anti-war Democratic colleagues, I would assume those relationships could deteriorate further with his backing of McCain. True, officially Lieberman is an "independent," and thus he can endorse anyone from any party he chooses. Still, it brings to mind what happened to a handful of other Democratic House members in history who decided to break from their party in their presidential candidate endorsements.

1968 - Rep. John Rarick (D-LA) endorses the candidacy of George Wallace, the former Democratic governor of Alabama who was the presidential nominee of the American Independent Party.

Rarick, an outspoken segregationist, was in only his first term when he came out in favor of Wallace; the year before, he got clobbered in a gubernatorial bid. Rarick was really speaking his district: His Baton Rouge-based 6th Congressional District voted 54 percent in favor of Wallace against Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon. In early January of 1969, House Democrats narrowly beat back a motion to strip Rarick of his seniority. But liberals in the party refused to let it rest, and less than a month later the Democratic caucus voted 101-73 to deny Rarick's committee seniority. (Not a big deal, because he was only elected to the House in 1966.) Rarick served until 1974, when he was defeated in the Democratic primary.

1964 - Reps. John Bell Williams (D-MS) and Albert Watson (D-SC) endorse the presidential candidacy of Republican Barry Goldwater.

Unlike Rarick, who was only in office for a term when he endorsed Wallace, Williams had much more seniority and more to lose when he — along with freshman Watson — shunned Lyndon Johnson and backed Goldwater. Williams was first elected to the House in 1946 and was the No. 2 Democrat on the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. The House Democratic Caucus voted in January 1965 to strip Williams and Watson of their seniority. Ten days later, Watson switched to the GOP and resigned his seat, deciding to run in the special election as a Republican. When he won, he was the first South Carolina Republican to do so since Reconstruction. He served in the House until 1970, when he gave up his seat for an unsuccessful gubernatorial attempt.

Williams, who stayed in the Democratic Party, saw a tremendous upsurge in his popularity. He was elected governor in 1967.

1960 - Rep. William Colmer (D-MS) endorses an unpledged slate of electors instead of John Kennedy, his party's presidential nominee.

House Democrats took no action.

1956 - Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY) endorses President Dwight Eisenhower (R) for re-election over Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson.

House Democrats took no action.

Some also may remember what happened in 1983, when Texas Rep. Phil Gramm, who had infuriated his fellow Democrats by working with President Reagan and the GOP on tax matters, was stripped of his seat on the House Budget Committee. Two days later, Gramm resigned from Congress and announced he would run for re-election as a Republican. He won the special election and served until he won the first of three Senate terms in 1984.

Oh, and one more comment about the significance of The Des Moines Register endorsements, courtesy of Jeff Roberts of Ankeny, Iowa: "First, Republicans hate the Register, so any endorsements by them would count as a liability. Of course, McCain's poll numbers are down in Ron Paul territory, so it couldn't hurt him too much.

"The Register has been pushing Hillary for years. I remember a Register poll that was taken before the 2004 race started in which she was in first place, but only around 15 percent. The best description of those results would have been that at that early stage, there was no clear favorite. Instead, the Register headline was, "Iowa Democrats High on Hillary." Complete garbage. Democrats really don't care that much for the Register either, so this won't count for anything."

And speaking of Iowa ... check out this steroid-laced video of Ken Rudin in Des Moines discussing the history of the caucuses, produced by NPR's John Poole.

Time for one question this week, relatively speaking:

Q: I know that Reps. Mark Udall (D-CO) and Tom Udall (D-NM) are cousins, as their fathers, the late Rep. Morris Udall (D-AZ) and Kennedy-Johnson Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, respectively, were brothers. Recently, I have heard Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) described as a cousin too. What is his relationship to the Udalls? – Frank Ferrari, Mesa, Ariz.

A: Gordon Smith's mother, Jessica Udall Smith, was a cousin of Mo and Stewart Udall. Stewart, by the way, served in Congress until joining the Kennedy administration, and Mo won a special 1961 election to succeed him.

Both Mark and Tom Udall are running for open Senate seats next year.

YOU WANT TRIVIA? A few gems courtesy of some fellow Junkies:

Richard Marmer of Sacramento, Calif.: Which two presidents served the shortest full terms? Answer: George Washington (his first term ran from April 30, 1789, until March 4, 1793) and Franklin Roosevelt (March 4, 1933, until the "lame duck" amendment shortened his term to Jan. 20, 1937).

Steve Ury of Los Angeles: An earlier column talked about the potential of a "subway series" for president among three New Yorkers: Rudy Giuliani (R), Hillary Clinton (D) and Michael Bloomberg (I). And we wrote that the 1940 and 1944 campaigns both had New Yorkers as the major party presidential candidates. Steve notes that a third candidate in both races was Socialist Party nominee Norman Thomas, also a New Yorker.

Rich Wong of Derwood, Md.: Before 2006, the last time Democrats won both House seats in New Hampshire was in 1912.

Bruce MacNeil of Arlington, Va., wonders if Ted Stevens (R-AK) holds the record for the shortest time as a state's junior senator. Stevens was appointed on Dec. 24, 1968, to succeed the late Sen. Bob Bartlett (D), and he became Alaska's senior senator on Jan. 3, 1969, when newly elected Sen. Mike Gravel (D) was sworn in.

THREE NEW MEMBERS OF THE NPR POLITICAL TEAM: We welcome Michael Olson, formerly of member station KUT in Austin, Texas; Nancy Cook, who comes to us via member station WRNI in Providence, R.I.; and Laurel Wamsley, an in-house find who had been working at All Things Considered.


Jan. 3 – Iowa caucus.

Jan. 5 – Wyoming Republican county conventions (caucuses). Also: Back-to-back Democratic and Republican debates at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (ABC/WMUR-TV).

Jan. 8 – New Hampshire primary.

Jan. 10 – Republican presidential candidate debate, Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Fox).

Jan. 15 – Michigan primary.

Jan. 16 – Republican presidential candidate debate, Columbia, S.C. (NPR).

Jan. 19 – Nevada caucuses; South Carolina Republican primary.

2 P.M. START FOR THE TOTN "JUNKIE" SEGMENT: Don't forget, the "Political Junkie" segment that has been heard every Wednesday on Talk of the Nation, NPR's live call-in program, has become (uh oh) even longer, now starting at 2 p.m. Eastern time and running 40 glorious minutes. The "expanded" Junkie segment will continue each week through next year's elections. Remember, if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can hear the program on the Web.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly political podcast. It's a combination of brilliant analysis and sophisticated humor, hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. It goes up on the Web site every Thursday and can be heard here. And hey, did anyone notice that last week's episode ran for 25 minutes and 35 seconds? It's an all-time IAP podcast record! P.S. Remember, you can subscribe to the podcast directly via iTunes.

*******Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), leading in many polls for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, announces he will not run (Dec. 19, 1985).

NO COLUMN NEXT WEEK: This is the last Political Junkie column of 2007. Have a great and safe holiday and a Happy New Year, and we'll see you in 2008.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org