WASHINGTON-Sen. Joseph Lieberman held a news conference Wednesday with the country’s most powerful Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, on the politically divisive issue of school vouchers. At the end of the event, as the two men walked off the stage together, a reporter shouted out one last question:
“Is this a 2012 presidential ticket?”
Lieberman and Boehner laughed off the query. But the scene demonstrates that, despite Lieberman’s announcement last week that he will retire instead of run for a 5th term, the Connecticut independent’s ability to irk the left, intrigue the press, and keep himself in the political spotlight won’t diminish anytime soon.
Lieberman’s decision to reveal his political campaign plans, or lack thereof, so early in the season have sparked questions about how much power he’ll wield as the 112th Congress gets underway. But where some observers see a lame-duck, others see a freer hand.
“I don’t think he’s going to soften, sharpen, or necessarily change,” said Ned Lamont, Lieberman’s 2006 Democratic primary foe. “He’s often said he felt liberated after losing the primary to me, and now that he’s not running for re-election, maybe that’s a double-down liberation. My hunch is that gives him the freedom to really go out and fight for some legislation that will be a big piece of his legacy.”
For once, Lieberman and Lamont agree.
“Having made this decision, I now do have a sense of sort of an open field,” Lieberman said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ve got this two years ahead of me in the Senate… And I don’t have to worry about running around America with my tin cup raising money for a campaign. I can focus on the things that matter to me… That’s a good feeling.”
And if those things happen to stir the political pot, so be it. So in the Capitol on Wednesday, he and Boehner unveiled legislation to reauthorize a school vouchers program for students in the District of Columbia–a proposal President Barack Obama and other Democrats, not to mention the powerful teachers’ unions, strongly oppose.
Today, Lieberman will be appearing at a local Washington school to promote another controversial education proposal–making Obama’s Race to the Top program permanent. He’s got the president’s backing on that initiative, but it’s hardly a top priority for other Connecticut politicians, who have soured on the program since the state twice lost out on Race to the Top grants.
Lieberman shrugged off questions about whether his “swan song” has started off with a discordant note, since his retirement announcement sparked a round of negative opinion pieces criticizing him for being selfish, vain, and otherwise unlikeable.
“It’s just the way it is in our politics today,” he said. “You come to a point where if nobody’s saying anything negative about you in this climate, you’re not really standing for anything. I don’t really have second thoughts about the positions and votes I took that were the most controversial, such as on the Iraq war. I know I did what I thought was right.”
And Lieberman said that far from being weakened by his decision, he thinks he has an even bigger role to play in the next two years as a “bridge-builder” in a sharply divided Senate.
“There’s only 100 of us, and every vote counts,” Lieberman said of the Senate, where 53 lawmakers, including Lieberman, caucus with the Democrats and 47 with the Republicans.
“I feel very good about what I’ve been able to do to build bridges and alliances and make things happen, both in the last two years of the Bush Administration and the first two years of the Obama Administration,” he said. “And if I was able to do some of that in the last couple of years, it’s going to be more necessary this time, because there’s only 53 Democratic caucus members.”
As for decision to dive back into the political waters with a focus on school choice and an appearance with Boehner, Lieberman said he realized that could provoke more negative commentary from his detractors. But he noted he’s been a longtime supporter of school vouchers, and said the timing of Wednesday’s news conference was coincidence (it’s National School Choice Week).
Lieberman said education reform will be a major focus point of his legislative work over the next two years. He said he’ll also push for bipartisan consensus on a clean energy bill and debt-reduction measures. And he plans to stay deeply involved in national and homeland security matters and try to exercise his sway over U.S. policy in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
“That means supporting an orderly withdrawal of troops in Iraq and sticking with our troops in Afghanistan,” he said.
Lieberman said his decision to forgo another re-election campaign was long in the making–dating back to his bitter 2006 campaign, in which he was defeated by Lamont in the Democratic primary but rebounded to victory as an independent.
“After the 2006 campaign, which had some of the most difficult, really painful, moments of my career and also some of the most exhilarating and satisfying at the end, there’s a way in which I said to myself this is probably going to be my last term in the Senate,” Lieberman said.
But while he’d had the “inclination” against another run for a long time, he didn’t make a final decision until November. As he was still wavering last year, some of his political consultants suggested he conduct a poll and start raising money, to get a feel for the political landscape before making a final call.
“But I knew I had to make a different kind of decision here,” Lieberman said. For one thing, he didn’t need a poll to tell him it’d be a tough race. In any case, he said he didn’t want to make a decision based on a poll taken two years out.
“I pushed myself to go through a process, which was ‘Okay, imagine that you’re way ahead in the public opinion polls today. Do you want to run again?’,” Lieberman recounted of his decision-making process.
“And when I thought about the numbers–24 years in the Senate, 40 years in elective office, 15 campaigns, by my count, in Connecticut and a lot more nationally… I really felt inside myself that I wanted to start a new chapter.”
He said he has “no idea” what that next chapter might be. “It’s part of the excitement right now that I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do,” Lieberman said, adding that he’d like to stay in public service in some capacity.
Asked if that meant an appointed post in the Executive Branch, Lieberman said he’d love it if such an opportunity came along. “But I’m certainly not looking for it for the next two years,” he added, “because I really want to finish strong here in the Senate.”
In the meantime, he said he’s enjoying the spectacle of the race to succeed him.
“It’s healthy,” he said. “I’m enjoying just reading the papers and watching it.”
He said he has no current plans to endorse. “I might. I might not.”
Asked about the possibility of another bid by Republican Linda McMahon, who he toyed with supporting last year in her campaign against Democrat Richard Blumenthal, Lieberman sidestepped the question.
Is she an appealing candidate? “I don’t even know if I want to answer that question. I’m going to watch it for a while,” he said.