As the Senate prepared for its all-night debate on Iraq last month, Joseph Lieberman stood with Republicans and lambasted war opponents, most of them Democrats.
``They're already asleep about the consequences of an American defeat in Iraq for our national security,'' Lieberman told reporters at a packed press conference.
Yet little more than an hour earlier, Lieberman had dined at the Democrats' weekly policy luncheon, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Lieberman a valued colleague, despite differences on Iraq.
The day was emblematic of Lieberman's double life since returning six months ago as an independent who sides with President Bush on Iraq, yet caucuses with Democrats -- giving them a tenuous one-vote majority.
``Liberated'' from party affiliation, Lieberman promised last fall to stake out a role as an independent ``bridge builder.'' But although Democratic Senate colleagues routinely praise him and work with him, outside the Beltway he has only become more isolated from the public and from many in Washington as the war becomes the most polarizing issue of the day.
Meanwhile, Lieberman, still wounded by the Connecticut Democrats' rejection of him over the war in a primary last Aug. 8, has no relationship with the state party.
Nancy DiNardo, Democratic state chairwoman, said Lieberman's place in the party, if there is one, remains unresolved since he declared himself an ``independent Democrat'' after his re-election last fall as a petitioning candidate.
``It is awkward, but I don't have a solution,'' DiNardo said. ``It is awkward for him, too.''
The party's premier fundraising event, the Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner, was held this year on the Jewish Sabbath, giving the religiously observant Lieberman a graceful reason to skip the event. Last year, he was booed.
Bill Curry, a two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee and ex-Clinton aide who now writes a weekly political column for The Courant, said, ``I'm guessing the JJB will be on the Sabbath for the next four years, minimum.''
Will He Stay In The Fold?
Lieberman's position on the war can inspire almost as much contention as war itself.
A Curry column last month with the headline ``Lieberman: Blind To Folly,'' harshly assessed the senator's war stance, calling the senator ``one of Bush's two best spear carriers,'' along with Republican John McCain.
The column prompted an op-ed piece by Lanny Davis, a friend and former aide to President Clinton, defending the senator as possessing impeccably liberal Democratic credentials, as long as Iraq is removed from the picture.
One question that hovers over many debates about the senator at home and in Washington is whether Lieberman will remain a Democrat. It's one that Lieberman seems to enjoy keeping the Democrats guessing about.
``He wouldn't be honest or human not to enjoy it,'' Davis said in an interview. ``Anybody in political life would like to have that pivotal leverage. He is the 51st vote, and he knows it.''
Good Democrat or not, Lieberman said last week that he has no interest in participating in that debate.
``I don't. I don't. Some people say, `Are you going to leave the Democratic Party?' And I say, `I don't have any intention to do that.' I am most troubled, of course, by where most of the party nationally is going on foreign and defense policy,'' Lieberman said. ``But that debate goes on.''
With a certainty never publicly expressed by Lieberman, Davis said Lieberman never would join the Senate Republican caucus. Democrats may revile Lieberman over the war, but Davis said the senator shares too much of their agenda to join the GOP.
His votes this year match up well with other Democrats. He has been with the party on 88.8 percent of the 303 Senate votes he has cast so far this year; take away Iraq-related votes, and the percentage would be closer to the 95.7 percent logged by the state's senior senator, Democrat Christopher Dodd.
Even with the Iraq votes, Lieberman's record is close to the Democratic Senate average of 88.9 percent and consistent with his earlier years' voting patterns.
He describes himself as part of a long party tradition of senators who were considered progressive on social issues and hard-liners on foreign and defense policy, and cites President Kennedy, former Sen. Henry ``Scoop'' Jackson and others.
``He cannot leave the Democratic Party in the Senate without fundamentally turning his back on where he wants this country to go,'' Davis said, adding that a Republican majority would be anathema to Lieberman's hopes for the environment and social justice.
```Government is a friend, not an enemy.' That philosophy is where Joe Lieberman still is,'' Davis said. ``I have no doubt I am right about that.''
Still, Lieberman's strong Democratic voting record often is obscured by a willingness to go further and further to embrace those sympathetic to his views on the Middle East.
``I go where I am comfortable,'' he said last week after a public appearance in Milford. ``And I'll be going to a lot of different places -- and on all sides.''
Last month, Lieberman warmly greeted Pastor John Hagee, a founder of Christians United for Israel and a man who agrees with Lieberman's view that a pre-emptive U.S. strike may one day be necessary to neutralize Iran.
``I would describe Pastor Hagee with the words the Torah uses to describe Moses,'' Lieberman told Hagee and his followers at a recent conference the group held in Washington, at which Lieberman was invited to speak. ``He is an `Eesh Elo Kim,' a man of God, because those words fit him; and like Moses, he has become the leader of a mighty multitude in pursuit of defense of Israel.''
But Hagee also has preached that sin in New Orleans may have brought on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which Hagee says arrived just in time to stop a ``homosexual parade.''
Lieberman said he disagreed with Hagee's comments about New Orleans, but he did not regret addressing Hagee's group or comparing the pastor to Moses. A copy of Lieberman's speech to the group is on his Senate website.
``Frankly, I didn't know what he had said -- I heard about it since then -- about New Orleans,'' said Lieberman, who had never met Hagee before his speech. ``But he is a very good man. He and his group, I think, represent an important force in our politics.''
Lieberman also declined to comment on his feelings about Hagee's belief that the return of Christ is imminent -- as is the ``Rapture,'' a time when Christians will be lifted from Earth, leaving nonbelievers to suffer.
``I don't agree with them on every religious aspect of their lives,'' Lieberman said, declining to identify areas of disagreement. ``I'm more interested in the political movement that Pastor Hagee represents than getting into all the details of theology.''
And they agree, he said, on foreign policy.
``I feel, when I am with them, I feel a real bond of faith and a great sort of sense of, you know, shared ideas about foreign policy,'' Lieberman said. ``That's why I go.''
To Lieberman, an alliance with John Hagee is no different from working across the aisle in the Senate with McCain, the Arizona senator who is seeking his party's nomination for president.
``I form partnerships with people in Congress on big issues, [whom] I disagree with on other issues, even my buddy, McCain,'' Lieberman said.
Davis said liberals have judged Lieberman by the company he keeps. ``He took his friends where they came,'' Davis said. ``That came with a price.''
And Lieberman's Democratic voting record also is overshadowed by overtly helping Republicans or criticizing Democratic leaders.
After Reid remarked in April that the war in Iraq had been lost, Lieberman said he not only disagreed, but also that ``Sen. Reid's statement is not based on military facts on the ground in Iraq and does not advance our cause there.''
What has rankled the anti-war activists even more, though, was Lieberman's active effort to defeat Maine Democrat Tom Allen's U.S. Senate bid.
Lieberman in June co-hosted with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a $3,000-per-person fundraiser for Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, a longtime friend who campaigned for Lieberman in 2006.
Officials at MoveOn.org were so angry they organized an Internet effort to raise money to counter Lieberman's action and wound up raising at least three times as much as the $115,000 the event brought in.
Collins, though, was thrilled at Lieberman's work. ``It was the most successful Washington fundraiser I ever had,'' she said. ``And people said it was refreshing to have the bipartisan atmosphere.''
Lieberman offered no apology.
``Susan Collins is a great senator and deserves to be re-elected,'' he said. ``Why wouldn't I co-host a fundraiser for her? If I'm for her, I'm going to be for her. I'm not going to play the political game.''
He said he criticized Reid publicly because of the leader's clout.
``I try not to get into personal attacks,'' Lieberman said. ``But in some ways the war is being fought here at home, too. If leader Reid convinces people the war is lost, support will grow for that position.''
Some Lieberman friends privately thought he went too far in the Reid and Collins cases. Longtime Lieberman critics were less shy about expressing their anger.
``He had already made a point of betraying his voters and his caucus,'' said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. ``And he goes out of his way to endorse the White House talking points.''
But trying to beat a Democrat, Pariser said, ``was drastic.''
Democratic colleagues say they remain comfortable with Lieberman, and understand, as Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., put it, ``his view on the war is a matter of conscience.''
A more cynical view is that Democrats have to be nice to him because his defection would cost them the majority.
``Democrats in the Senate generally know him and like him, but they also have no choice,'' said Donald Greenberg, associate professor of politics at Fairfield University. ``They have to massage his ego.''
Lieberman has succeeded in applying at least a veneer of bipartisanship to the Senate.
In the Senate homeland security committee, of which Lieberman is chairman, members do not sit in the traditional way, with Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other; they alternate, with a Democrat seated next to a Republican next to a Democrat, and so on.
Most Tuesdays, he and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., host a private discussion about key issues with members from both parties, sometimes as many as 40.
But critics question how Lieberman in today's climate -- and perhaps beyond -- can be seen as more than a war hawk. The war evokes passions like perhaps no other since Watergate in the early 1970s -- and Lieberman has been more a stick of dynamite than a balm.
``He can't lead on anything. Instead of being in the center, he's on the far right on the war and a liberal on domestic stuff,'' said Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a progressive group. ``He's a Democrat who's deranged on Iraq.''
Lieberman argues otherwise, pointing to how he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., worked together recently to craft an amendment condemning Iran's incursions into Iraq.
He said he has tried to get people together. During the Senate's recent marathon, he told colleagues he wanted to ``stop the passions, the political passions of a moment from sweeping across Congress.''
No one seemed to listen, not to a man who for weeks had been urging them to consider a military option against Iran, who stood at that press conference hours earlier surrounded by top Republicans and a hundred journalists, saying, ``We don't really think this debate ought to be happening on this bill'' or how the ``political war'' in this country ``very often has no resemblance to the reality of what's happening over there.''
Lieberman said he does not rule out urging a change in strategy, but he owes the new U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, a chance to show progress with the troop surge.
``I think institutionally we made a promise to Gen. Petraeus -- and I personally made a promise -- not to act until we see his report in September.''
Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker plan to give a progress report to Congress then.
``I hope sometime next year the troops added as part of the surge will come home,'' he said. ``But who knows where we're going to be in March or April?''
Or next fall. Liberals crave the approach of the 2008 election -- and the prospect of picking up more Democratic seats in the Senate. They say Lieberman will be seen differently by Democrats once he no longer is the 51st vote.
``Of course, Lieberman is no longer a Democrat,'' said Armando Llorens, who blogs at Talk Left as Big Tent Democrat. ``Because his vote is needed for caucusing purposes, obviously Harry Reid has to hold his tongue on Joe. We do not. But if Dems win Senate seats in 2008, Lieberman's position will be quite precarious, it seems to me.''Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun