Sen. Joe Lieberman has not been invited to either the Democratic or the Republican presidential convention this year, a major snub for a lawmaker who played prominent convention roles in the past.
Lieberman (Conn.), a self-described Independent Democrat, still has many powerful friends on both sides of the aisle. This week he will manage the cybersecurity bill on the Senate floor, one of the few pieces of legislation with a chance to pass Congress before the election. But when Democrats and Republicans gather in Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., later this summer, Lieberman will receive less homage than a local councilman. He will be left out of the festivities altogether.
Some Democrats think keeping Lieberman away is a mistake. After all, he served as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, becoming the first Jewish American to run atop a major party’s ticket. He also presided for several years as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, which helped transform the ideology of the Democratic Party and laid the groundwork for Bill Clinton’s election in 1992.
“Even though he’s no longer a member of the Democratic Party, he caucuses with the Senate Democrats and provides a vote for their majority. It would be a good thing to invite him,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Gore’s campaign. “He doesn’t have to be invited to give a speech. He doesn’t have to have Clinton’s time slot.”
Lieberman told The Hill he has not received an invitation to the GOP convention either, even though he delivered a high-profile address at the party’s 2008 convention in St. Paul, Minn. “This is one of the benefits of being an Independent — you don’t have to go to either convention,” he quipped.
Lieberman made a memorable attempt to bridge party divides in 2008 when he endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a move that infuriated many Democrats and nearly cost him a top committee slot. “I am here tonight because John McCain’s whole life testifies to a great truth: Being a Democrat or Republican is important, but it is nowhere near as important as being an American,” he said in the 2008 speech. He went on to praise McCain for taking on “corrupt Republican lobbyists” to reform campaign finance law and for trying to reform the nation’s immigration laws and “actually do something about global warming.”
McCain and Lieberman are close friends; the Arizona senator had seriously considered crossing party lines to pick Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman does not have a close relationship with Mitt Romney, this year’s putative GOP standard-bearer. Even if he did, Romney — who has fought off charges that he’s a faux conservative — would not want a former Democrat on the stage extolling his efforts to bridge divides on healthcare or other issues.
Lieberman’s speech in St. Paul marked the low point of his relations with the Democratic Party, which had deteriorated steadily after his 2004 run for president. His support for the war in Iraq proved highly unpopular among liberals and was the main reason why he lost the Connecticut Democratic primary to Ned Lamont in 2006. Lieberman won the general election because he retained popularity among centrist Democrats, independents and Republicans.
While Obama and other candidates around the country regularly criticize partisan gridlock in Washington, Lieberman’s brand of centrist politics has become steadily less popular in Washington. This year’s conventions will be highly charged bash-fests. Democrats will spend a week torching Romney’s track record at Bain Capital, while Republicans will pummel Obama for the weak economy.
“Joe Lieberman is a victim of polarization. He’s another person cast aside by people who aren’t interested in centrist views,” said Professor Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, who has worked as a scholar in residence in the Senate.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said Lieberman’s approach is out of step with the times. “Given how polarized the political process has become, my guess is that Joe Lieberman is taking this, appropriately, as a tremendous compliment,” said Schnur. “If there were a convention being held in the days between Tampa and Charlotte that was devoted to bridging partisan gaps and moving forward on the country’s challenges, Joe Lieberman would probably be the keynote speaker.”
Other prominent Independents will likewise skip the conventions. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal Independent who caucuses with Democrats, does not plan to attend the Democratic convention, according to a spokesman.
Angus King, an Independent and front-runner to win retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) seat, has not received an invitation to either convention, according to a campaign spokeswoman. After the 2008 campaign, Democrats contemplated stripping Lieberman of his Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairmanship. They backed down after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) reportedly reached out to Lieberman about the possibility of switching parties.
These days Lieberman is treated by colleagues much the same as any Democratic chairman. His vote for Democratic legislation is often more assured than is support from centrists facing tough reelections, although he did vote last week against a Democratic proposal to end the Bush tax rates for income above $250,000.