When trying to explain his decision not to seek another term in Senate, Senator Joseph Lieberman went to the Bible.
“The reason I have decided not to run for re-election in 2012 is best expressed in the wise words from Ecclesiastes: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven,’” Lieberman said. “For me, it is time for another season and another purpose under Heaven.”
For those less familiar with the bible, Lieberman also jokingly offered another reason: “I promised Hadassah” he said, referring to his wife who stood next to him at the Stamford, CT, event on Wednesday, “that when Regis leaves television, I will leave the Senate.” Regis Philbin had just announced a day earlier he would retire from co-hosting his morning TV show after 28 years.
Lieberman, 68, made the announcement at the Marriott hotel in Stamford, which was built on the site where the house of the senator’s immigrant grandparents once stood. Lieberman was flanked by family members – three of his children with their spouses and six of his ten grandchildren. The four-term Jewish senator denied rumors his decision had to do with the tough race facing him in 2012. “I’ve never shied away from a good fight, and I never will,” he said. Political analysts have been noting for a while that Lieberman’s Democratic challengers could prove to be strong, given the strong anti-Lieberman sentiment among many Connecticut Democrats.
The reason for this sentiment dates back to Lieberman’s last senate campaign.
In 2006, after vocally supporting President George Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq, Lieberman faced tough opposition from the liberal wing in his party and eventually lost the primary to anti-war businessman Ned Lamont. He then decided to run as an independent and won the race, making him one of two independents in the Senate who caucused with the Democrats.
But Democrats were not ready to forgive, and things only got worse when Lieberman decided to support Republican candidate John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. He even went on the campaign trail and spoke at the Republican convention against Democratic candidate Barak Obama. But eventually politics took over and the Democrats learned to appreciate the value of having another senator on their side, especially since, for a while, it was Lieberman who gave them the 60-seat super-majority in the Senate.
“Along the way, I have not always fit comfortably into conventional political boxes—Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative,” Lieberman said in his speech Wednesday, but it was this independent approach that turned out to be a political liability.
Lieberman came under fire from Liberals because of his opposition for including a public option to the healthcare reform legislation (citing Jewish values, some Jewish Democrats even protested outside his home), and then he was criticized by conservatives for eventually voting for the bill. For Jewish activists, Joe Lieberman, who was the first Orthodox Jew elected to the Senate, was a political riddle.
As Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000, he was a source of pride for the community, bringing Jewish Americans closer than ever to the White House. He also won much praise for reaching across the aisle on many key issues.
But when it came to the specifics, Lieberman was often at odds with the mainstream Jewish community and its liberal views. His stand on healthcare and on the Iraq war helped alienate many Jewish supporters, though many of the same individuals praised his push for climate change legislation and the leading role he played in repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the law that forced homosexuals in the military to keep their sexual orientation private on pain of expulsion.
Lieberman, arguably the most visible and outspoken Jewish politician for the past two decades, remained a controversial figure for Jewish Democrats. Perhaps this explains why the first group to issue a statement praising Lieberman after he announced he will not run again was the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Senator Lieberman is a true mensch and a great American,” said RJC executive director Matt Brooks in a statement, adding that Lieberman “put principle over politics.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council came shortly after with its own statement praising Lieberman for breaking “the glass ceiling for Jewish Americans in public service.”
Lieberman, in his speech Wednesday, would not say much about his plans for the future and spoke only about seeking “new opportunities that will allow me to continue to serve our country.”
For the purpose of Jewish head-counting, Lieberman’s departure in 2012 will leave the Senate with 11 Jewish members, assuming all other Jewish senators up for reelection will run and win. It will also mean an end to the unusual situation in which Connecticut is represented by two Jewish senators (the other being newly elected Richard Blumenthal). This will leave California as the only state where both senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are Jewish.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.