Joe Lieberman left politics about ten years ago, and he was a figure of controversy especially among Democrats, as he went from Democratic standard-bearer in 2000 as vice presidential candidate to foreign policy ally for Republicans by 2004. But there’s a bit more about him than that, and truth be told, he is much like his late friend John McCain of Arizona, in that he was regarded as a “maverick” in his own party and the extent of his dissents were played up by both him and those within his party who took umbrage to these dissents.
In 1970, Lieberman, an attorney by profession, was first elected to the Connecticut Senate as a “reform Democrat”, serving for ten years. This was a springboard for higher office, and in 1980 he ran for Congress for the 3rd district. However, this was a good year for Republicans and he was defeated by Republican Lawrence DeNardis. However, this proved but a temporary setback. In 1982, Lieberman was elected attorney general, and in this position, he stressed the environment and fought for consumer protection laws.
The 1988 Election
If there was a figure in the Republican Party during the Reagan years who was a bête noire for them, it was Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. Weicker had never been a conservative and had become increasingly liberal and combative over the years. He frequently opposed President Reagan’s positions on legislation, and by the end of his presidency he was more liberal than ever. In 1987, his ADA score was an 85% and in 1988 it was a 90%. This resulted in National Review endorsing Lieberman, finding him better than Weicker. William F. Buckley Jr., the publisher of the conservative magazine, was a personal friend of Lieberman’s and had first met him when the latter was a student at Yale. At the start of the campaign, Weicker had been polling ahead of Lieberman. This crossover conservative vote brought Lieberman over the top, with him prevailing by 0.7% and the state hasn’t had a Republican senator since. He proved a quick improvement from a conservative standpoint, albeit minor, scoring a 75% in 1989 and an 83% in 1990. In 1994, Lieberman won reelection with the highest margin in the state’s history for a Senate election with 67% of the vote and winning all counties.
Joe Lieberman vs. Violent Video Games
Many politicians in the 1990s, Democrat and Republican, were expressing concern over violent video games, and it got a bit to the point of moral panic. In 1993, he with Senators Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) conducted hearings on the matter of video game violence with the games Night Trap and Mortal Kombat figuring most prominently as examples of alarming content. Lieberman believed then and believes now that violent video games play a role in violent acts. The result of this hearing and Lieberman’s introduction of a law providing for a government panel to rate video games, was the establishment of the Interactive Digital Software Association to lobby for the industry. They also formed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board for content ratings. This was a far less dramatic response than the film industry forming the Hays Code in the 1930s to prevent federal regulation and the comic book industry forming the Comics Code in response to the 1950s moral panic on the subject.
The Postal Backfire
Although Lieberman’s efforts were successful in getting the video game industry to adopt a ratings system, his push could backfire. In 1997, the developer Running With Scissors released a game called Postal, in which you play a mass shooter. Although you don’t get rewarded for or are required to kill unarmed people, they inevitably get in the crossfire. Lieberman denounced the game on the floor of the Senate as one of the three worst things in American society, with the two others being Marilyn Manson and Calvin Klein underwear ads (Powell). Disclosure about myself here, I am a gamer who has played many violent games and I have played through and own a copy of Postal. I do not believe that a game has caused anyone to commit an act of horrible violence. People like that have the capacity within them and I believe there is a myriad of things that could trigger them.
Further Effort at Regulation
In 2005, Lieberman sponsored with Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) The Family Entertainment Protection Act, which had it been enacted would have fined retailers for selling games to minors contrary to the ESRB rating system. A law similar to this proposal was passed in several states including California. In 2011, these were struck down 7-2 on First Amendment grounds by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011), which conclusively ruled that video games were a form of art.
Lieberman and Clinton
Senator Lieberman was largely supportive of President Clinton and his policies, but he was also the first Democrat to criticize him over the Lewinsky Affair. Seconded by Democrats Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Dan Moynihan of New York, Lieberman condemned Clinton’s actions as “immoral”, “disgraceful”, and “deserving of public rebuke and accountability” (Balz). Despite his criticisms, Lieberman ultimately voted against impeachment, holding that a censure would have sufficed. His criticism of Clinton’s conduct combined with his opposition to impeachment lent credibility to opposing the impeachment, thus his speech ironically helped save Clinton’s presidency. He also was a supporter of higher defense spending than many other Democrats and supported school vouchers, which went directly against the Democratic support base of teacher unions.
The 2000 Election
The pick of Joe Lieberman, the first Democratic senator to criticize President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, seems like another way for Al Gore to distance himself from the scandal. Indeed, this was a motivation along with Lieberman being a potential first: the first Jewish vice president. The reaction from liberals to this pick was neither hostile nor enthusiastic. As Amy Isaacs of Americans for Democratic Action said on the choice of him, “I wouldn’t say dancing in the streets, but we’re not gnashing our teeth either” (Chen & Barabak). Gore did this despite Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) requesting him not to pick a nominee from a state with a Republican governor. Connecticut’s Governor at the time was Republican John Rowland. American Jews were jubilant at this first, but their first president or vice president as of 2022 still has to wait. The presidential election of 2000 was one of the most contentious in the nation’s history and ultimately Gore-Lieberman would lose to Bush-Cheney by an electoral college vote and a controversial vote count in Florida.
A Critical Break
Senator Lieberman attracted a lot of criticism for his break from the Democratic position on the Iraq War come 2004, and this has led his reputation as a maverick to be greater among Democrats and Republicans alike than it actually was. On many fundamental political issues, Lieberman remained a liberal Democrat. He was still pro-choice, pro-labor, and against the Bush tax cuts. Indeed, his average ADA score, if one does not count absences against, is an 87%. However, this issue dampened any enthusiasm that might have been had for his run for the Democratic nomination for president and harmed his prospects for renomination. In 2006, despite numerous Democrats including former President Clinton campaigning for him, he was defeated for renomination by future Governor Ned Lamont. However, Lieberman figured that he had enough support in the state to run for reelection as an Independent Democrat. He did so, and won, as many Republicans abandoned their own nominee to vote for him. Indeed, 33% of Democrats, 54% of Independents, and 70% of Republicans voted for him (CNN). Lieberman achieved an uncommon feat among senators, the ability to come back even when their own party disavows them, as did both Virginia’s Harry F. Byrd Jr. in 1970 and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski in 2010.
One of Lieberman’s good friends in the Senate was John McCain of Arizona, and after he was nominated, he actually endorsed him for the presidency given their agreements on foreign policy. This cemented in the minds of Democrats the idea that Lieberman had gone full Republican, even though in truth most of Lieberman’s dissents with Democrat surrounded the Iraq War. McCain had even asked him to run as his vice president, but he declined. The McCain-Lieberman ticket would have been an interesting one, an effort at a “unity” ticket. My guess though is that it still wouldn’t have won. Lieberman’s endorsement did have a number of Democrats furious with him, but newly elected President Obama felt like he needed all the support he could get for his legislation, so he didn’t push retaliation. Indeed, Lieberman would vote for most of President Obama’s legislation and he in fact voted for all of his positions on votes Americans for Democratic Action counted in their 2009 scores.
Lieberman on Obama’s Policies
Although Joe Lieberman voted for Obamacare as did all Democratic senators, he was among the Democratic senators who opposed the “public option” in the original legislation, and since passage of this measure was already going to be difficult given staunch Republican opposition, so the provision was removed. The real negotiations that occurred on the bill were not Democrats with Republicans, but rather Democrats with other Democrats. Lieberman also sponsored the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and voted for “cash for clunkers”, the stimulus plan, and SCHIP.
Senator Lieberman opted not to run for reelection in 2012. His favorability among Democrats was probably not great given memories of his stances on the Iraq War and his endorsement of McCain in 2008. Although looking back on matters for Democrats, Lieberman’s endorsement of McCain probably doesn’t seem that bad anymore. The American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime score of 15% but DW-Nominate saw him as having a -0.205, making him a moderate liberal by that standard. In the year of his retirement, he opted not to endorse either the Democratic or Republican candidate, but in 2016 and 2020 he endorsed the Democratic candidate. In 2018, Lieberman spoke at Senator McCain’s funeral, and it was there that he revealed that he had asked him to be his VP.
America Votes 2006. CNN.
Balz, D. (1998, September 4). Leading Senate Democrat Blasts Clinton’s Behavior. The Washington Post.
Chen, E. & Barabak, M.Z. (2000, August 8). Gore Chooses Sen. Lieberman as Running Mate. Los Angeles Times.
Powell, J. (2011, June 23). Postal And The Pinnacle of Gaming Controversy. We Got This Covered.
Segarra, L.M. & Newcomb, A. (2019, August 10). Joe Lieberman Famously Blamed Video Games for Violence. Now Guns and the Internet Worry Him Even More. Fortune.