Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman strode into room 430 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, grinning and waving. Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, of neighboring Rhode Island, greeted him by first name. Lieberman nodded at Sen. Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live funnyman, and said, “I laugh at all his jokes.” Franken shook his head, smiling.
Were the moment not so fraught with high political drama, it might have felt like a college reunion. Lieberman was returning to his old stomping grounds on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon to offer what bipartisan cover he could for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary.
“I’ve known Joe a long time,” Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, told me on Wednesday. “He’s a good guy. We served together.”
Lieberman was there to serve as a bridge across the aisle. He’s now a lobbyist, who works for a law firm retained by Trump.
But his return also reminded his critics, especially on the left, why they so distrust him. They say he’s an unreliable partner when it matters most — from his vocal support of the Iraq War to helping kill the public option for Obamacare to speaking at the 2008 Republican National Convention in support of John McCain.
“I don’t know any Democrat who cares what Joe Lieberman thinks, to be honest with you,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a progressive Democrat, said in an interview. “I really don’t.”
Lieberman still has some friends on Capitol Hill, or at least what passes for “friendship” in Washington. And he’s now plying his old connections in the Senate club — plus the “D” that once hung by his name — to support Republican causes, including Donald Trump’s.
Lieberman still has “friends” on the Hill
On Tuesday night, Lieberman introduced DeVos, a controversial figure whom Democrats have made a top target. Every Democrat on the committee was openly critical of her during the confirmation hearing. She’s a billionaire, and has been widely accused of trying to direct public funds to private schools.
But Lieberman, who served 24 years as a Democrat and was Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000, still has a reservoir of goodwill among the caucus on which he can draw. That may help explain why Kasowitz Benson, a law firm based in New York, decided to hire him one year after he left the Senate. (Trump has now hired Lieberman’s law firm to represent him in several lawsuits, including one he’s threatening against the New York Times for defamation.) And it’s almost certainly why Republicans turned to him for the DeVos hearing.
"He’s got some friends on the Democratic side still, so I think it was savvy to have him introduce Betsy," says Ned Lamont, who defeated Lieberman in Connecticut’s Senate Democratic primary in 2006 before losing to him in the general election.
Indeed, in interviews, several members of the Democratic caucus spoke to their personal affection for Lieberman. “I think Joe Lieberman is a good friend of mine, and I think everybody has the right to say what they think,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner told me.
“Joe’s a friend ... Joe has integrity,” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said in an interview in the Dirksen Senate Building on Wednesday.
Added Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, the progressive Democrat who took his seat in 2014: “Lieberman’s a great friend, even if we disagree on important issues. ... He remains a good friend, despite our occasional disagreements.”
Lieberman tries tapping into lingering good will
It was in this same spirit that Lieberman appealed to his old colleagues during DeVos’s confirmation hearing.
He explained that he met DeVos through “one of many bipartisan efforts” to help America’s public schools since leaving office. Lieberman now sits on the board of directors for the American Federation for Children, a group that advocates for the charter school agenda and, critics say, calls for “the privatization of the public school system.” (The AFC did not respond to a request for comment on if or how much Lieberman was paid by the organization.)
“For me, as a Democrat, it is especially gratifying that many of these state AFC programs have been enacted by bipartisan support in state legislatures,” Lieberman said.
He concluded his speech by touting DeVos’s character — “she is a mother, a grandmother. She cares about children more generally.” And then he left the committee room. He was seen leaving the building less than 30 minutes after he first began talking.
While Lieberman didn’t point out that his law firm was paid by Trump, he did repeatedly cite his years in the Senate and time in the Democratic caucus in his speech introducing DeVos.
“A special hello to Chris Murphy, my friend and successor,” Lieberman said as he began his testimony. “It’s great to be back in the Senate today.”
Lieberman in lobbyland
When Joseph Lieberman left the Senate in 2012, he vowed that he wouldn’t follow so many of his fellow former colleagues into the influence-peddling junket.
“I’m not going to lobby,” Lieberman, 74, told the Times in an exit interview. “For sure.”
But that early idealism was quickly hardened by more practical considerations. Five months after leaving the Senate, Lieberman became senior counsel for Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, where he “applies the investigative skills he honed” in the US Senate to advising clients on “public policy, strategic and regulatory issues,” according to the company’s website.
Asked by the Wall Street Journal to explain the about-face, Lieberman said he didn’t plan on doing advocacy work for the law firm. “I don’t want to be in a position ever to be lobbying my former colleagues in Congress,” he said.
But less than one year into his job at Kasowitz Benson, Lieberman did exactly that — and became a registered lobbyist, first to represent Libyan businessman Basit Igtet. Lieberman’s work as a lobbyist would include “government relations services” such as the “communication of information” to “interested persons in the public sector,” such as “members of Congress, executive branch officials, and others,” according to his public disclosure forms.
Kasowitz Benson did not return calls requesting comment for this story.
“It’s very difficult to say what his guiding light is”
Among Lieberman’s post-Senate jobs has been serving as co-chair of No Labels, the scrupulously nonpartisan centrist political group. Reporters have struggled with how to describe the amorphous organization — it’s not a think tank or a political party, but more of an advocacy wing urging those with partisan affiliations to “put them aside and do what’s best for America,” according to the No Labels website.
No Labels has long been criticized by writers like Vox’s Matt Yglesias for its wishful thinking about the state of American politics. “The rise of recognizable and coherent parties creates some challenges for American political institutions, but the correct response is to tweak the institutions not to spend time wishing for label-free politics,” Yglesias wrote for ThinkProgress in 2010.
The 2016 presidential campaign made the group’s wishful thinking even more apparent. In an interview during the 2016 presidential campaign, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner pressed Lieberman on whether he would denounce Trump’s rampant misogyny, anti-intellectualism, and racism.
Lieberman demurred. As co-chair of No Labels, Lieberman said, he shouldn’t say how he felt about Trump one way or another:
CHOTINER: You don’t seem terrified by the prospect that this guy could be president.
LIEBERMAN: Well, I mean [laughs]. Here’s what I’m going to say today. I’m again trying to ... I understand the difficulty not only for me but for you in separating between Joe Lieberman individual and Lieberman co-chair of No Labels. I think the purpose of No Labels is so important that I am focused on it now.
During his Connecticut Senate runs, Lieberman was endorsed by the American Federation for Teachers. The AFT is now leading the charge against DeVos as education secretary — and it didn’t prevent Lieberman’s endorsement of DeVos.
“It’s really Joe Lieberman’s mantra: ‘Look at me, this is really what politics should be about — judging people individually, and not by party,’” says Gary Rose, a professor at Sacred Heart University who studies Connecticut state politics. “It’s very difficult to say what his guiding light or his guiding star is.”
Outside the hearing
Outside the hearing room for the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pension on Tuesday, about three dozen protesters brandished signs decrying the DeVos agenda.
Three carried a quilt with images of decrepit inner-city public schools. One woman said she’d come from Chicago, where she’d participated in a 34-day hunger strike against the conditions of her son’s public school. Two college students wore bright orange shirts demanding DeVos come clean on her “Title IX agenda.”
It’s not clear if Lieberman saw the demonstrators. He entered the committee hearing room by a back door that circumvents the hallway where the public waits to try to get in.
But inside, some listened intently as he began to speak.
“[Lieberman] got me for the first 30 seconds because I thought, ‘Oh, a Democrat and a Republican’ — maybe that means she can do some things to work across the aisle,” says Julia Dixon, 27, an advocate for the prevention of sexual violence through the nonprofit Promoting Awareness and Victim Empowerment who attended Tuesday’s hearing to learn more about DeVos’s positions.
“But it seemed to come down to, ‘She’s a good friend of mine, and she’s a good person,’” Dixon continued. “A lot of it is talk. You can say she’s kind and nice and a good person, but until you see the policies, I’m not going to believe it.”