Q&A with… Senator Joseph I. Lieberman

“I’m an optimist about America because our history shows that we have the ability to pull together and tackle the big challenges that our country has faced.”

Joe and Hadassah Lieberman during the 2000 presidential campaign

By Judie Jacobson

Just days before Rosh Hashanah, as Joe Lieberman prepared to wrap up his tenure as the senator from Connecticut, the Ledger spoke with him about his 24-year career on Capitol Hill –  its triumphs and challenges.
Q: What are your priorities for the remainder of your time in the Senate – what would you like to accomplish?
A: I’d have to say that my own priority is — or should be – Congress’ priority and the country’s priority; that is, to do something about the economy and the national debt. The two go together. In the lame duck session following the election we could reach a bipartisan agreement to reduce the debt. It would be the best thing we could do for the economy because it would give businesses in particular the confidence to invest and that will create jobs. So that’s the overall priority. I think we have a chance to accomplish that — but I wouldn’t say it’s more than 50/50.
I also have two personal priorities that both come of the committee that I’m privileged to chair. One is to adopt legislation that will protect Americans from cyber attack and cyber theft, which is a clear and present danger. Unfortunately, because of partisan differences and ideological rigidity we are having more trouble doing this then we should have. Normally this would be a bipartisan proposal, but a filibuster stopped us from taking up the bill before we left Washington early in August. We’ve been working on it over the break and hopefully we’ll have another chance to make a run at it when we get back. The second priority has to do with the U.S. Postal Service, which happens to come under my committee. The Postal Service is losing between $25 and $30 million a day; we passed a bill in the Senate and we think we’ll get the Postal Service back on the road to a balanced budget, but the House has not acted yet so we’re putting pressure on them to act, hopefully in September or right after the election, because this is something we really have to do. The Postal Service runs the risk of literally going bankrupt and we can’t let that happen — that would be a real body blow for our economy. It would put hundreds of thousands more people out of work.
So as I wind up, those are my big priorities. And I’m working hard. Obviously, I’ve made a decision not to run again…and I’ve also made a decision to stay out of campaigns this year – I’ve had enough of partisan campaign conflict that I thought I’d just stay out of it this year and end my career without more partisan conflict. Obviously, the advantage of that is that it allows me to focus on trying to get some of these things accomplished in the Senate before I leave office early next January.

Q: You mentioned the partisanship in Congress. Those of us looking in from the outside tend to believe that Congress has been immobilized by partisanship. Is there any hope the Congress will overcome the partisanship?
A: I’m by nature an optimist and I’m particularly an optimist about America because our history shows that we have the ability to pull together and tackle the big challenges that our country has faced, whether here or in conflicts overseas. But the partisanship and ideological rigidity is making it much harder; there are ideological interest groups in both major parties that really refuse to compromise — and I don’t mean compromise on principal, I mean compromise to accept less than 100 percent of what you want on big bills. If you demand 100 percent you’re never going to get anything done — which has been more often than not the rule. I believe the public is at a point where the traditional political reflexes — which is don’t do anything controversial — is exactly the opposite of what the public wants us to do; they want us to take some risks, political risks, to do what’s right for the country. In terms of the debt and the economy, the question is are we going to come together in Congress to help solve those problems or are we going to wait until we’re back in a recession or heading off a fiscal cliff? I hope we don’t have to wait that long.

Q: Looking back on your Senate career, what do you see as some of your major accomplishments?
A: Obviously, you never do everything you want, but I feel good about a lot of the things that I’ve tried to do and that I’ve been able to do. Looking back, some of my early first accomplishments way back in the 90s were on environmental legislation — clean air act amendments, clean water legislation – those are things that have really worked and not only helped to conserve some of our most beautiful natural assets, but really have been good for people’s health.
Civil rights has also been important to me for a long time. I’ve been involved in a lot of legislation regarding women’s rights and, more recently, to protect people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation. I will say that one of the most thrilling accomplishments I’ve had is the repeal of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell,” which I thought was really unfair. It was thrilling because people didn’t think we had a chance. They kept writing the obituary for the legislation and we kept coming back, and ultimately we adopted it with bipartisan support.
Looking back, probably the two things I feel best about, and perhaps my career has been characterized by, are (1) the protection of America’s security – particularly homeland security after the attacks of 9/11. I was on a committee that the Senate bipartisan leadership asked to take the lead on post-9/11 security, so I was able to co-sponsor the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security, the 9/11 Commission, and then the 9/11 commission recommendations, which together represented the most sweeping reforms in our national security structure since the 1940s when the Cold War began, because we were in a new kind of conflict. I’m very proud of that and I think it has helped to make us a safer country.
Of course, I’ve also been heavily involved in foreign policy. I was very active supporting our efforts in Bosnia and in Iraq — which is probably the most controversial thing I did. And, needless to say, I have been very supportive of a strong U.S./Israel relationship and the security of our great ally, Israel. I feel very good about that.

Q: And some of the things you would have liked to accomplish but could not?
A: There are obviously disappointments and the first one that comes to mind, as I mentioned before, would be the fact that we haven’t really dealt responsibly with the debt.
I worked very hard for a number of years to pass climate change legislation, which is really also energy independence legislation, and we just couldn’t do it — it really got stopped by exactly what I was talking about before: the ideological rigidity and partisan politics. I believe it’s going to happen — we’re going to adopt such legislation — the question is how close do we get to real dramatic climate catastrophe before we begin to deal with the problem.

Q: Let’s talk a little about Iran. Just last week, it was reported that Iran is expanding its nuclear program underground. Does this mean the window of opportunity to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions that Israel has referred to, is closing ?
A: I totally agree. Look, there is now a series of reports, including the most recent one you refer to that was issued last week [date] by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that make it clear that Iran is pushing ahead rapidly toward nuclear weapons capability. The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented now the striking and unsettling progress that Iran has made, just since the last report earlier this year, in building centrifuges that enrich nuclear fuel and building them deep underground. So, I think you would have to say that, yes, the U.S., under both Presidents Bush and Obama, and Europe have applied very strong economic sanctions against Iran and they are hurting Iran economically, but they have not stopped the country’s nuclear weapons development program one iota. All the diplomatic efforts that President Obama and others have made, all the alternatives they have offered to the regime in Iran to encourage them to come back into the community of nations, all have been rejected outright. So we’re at a point where Iran is forcing us — and Israel, and the Arab countries, and Europe, who also fear a nuclear Iran — to make one of two remaining choices: either we’re going to accept an Iran with nuclear weapons, which to me is unacceptable, or we’re going to take military action to stop their nuclear weapons development program. To me, the only course remaining – because the Iranians have given us no choice – is to take military action. Unless Iran changes its ways, the only question remaining is when does that happen.

Q: Well, when does that happen? And, do we leave that to Israel, or should the U.S. be the one to step in and take military action?
A: Well, in my opinion this is a decision that we should make – we’re the most able to deal a most effective blow militarily to the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis have capabilities that are significant, but obviously we have greater capabilities. And, of course, the Iranian nuclear weapons program is a great threat to the U.S. and to all of our allies in the Mid-East, not just to Israel but to all the Arab countries as well. All you have to do is talk to them and they’ll tell you that. As this clock continues to click, I would hope that we will decide to take action. We can do it in coordination with the Israelis, but I prefer that it be us because we have a better capability to do what has to be done.

Q: Do you think that in seeking out and killing Bin Laden President Obama has shown that he is not afraid to take military action if necessary?
A: Yes – there’s no question that President Obama has shown by the killing of Bin Laden, and by drone attacks against terrorists around the world, that he’s prepared to use our power against our worst enemies. The question now is will he in the case of Iran…and when.

Q: What are your plans after you leave the Senate?
A: I’m not certain, but I’m happy to say that people are talking to me and offering me opportunities. I would say that generally while I’m retiring from the Senate, I’m not retiring. Part of the reason that I wanted to leave now is that 24 years is a long time and it’s really time for me to try something else for the next chapter of my career. It will be a combination of some work in the private sector and staying involved in public policy, particularly homeland security and foreign policy. And, of course, I’ll never be far from our concern about the U.S./Israel relationship and the security of Israel.

Q:  Is leaving the Senate bittersweet?
A: The emotion that dominates my heart and soul as I end these 24 years is gratitude specifically to the voters of Connecticut who have given me this extraordinary opportunity to serve my state and country. I have a real sense of accomplishment about some of the things that I’ve been able to accomplish always in a bipartisan way with colleagues in the Senate, and I have no second thoughts about not running. I feel really privileged and I’m grateful that I have an opportunity for the next chapter whatever it may be.
I was thinking that Rosh Hashanah has special meaning for me now because Rosh Hashanah is about new beginnings. We believe that Rosh Hashanah is the day in which God created Adam and Eve — the human species — and we express our gratitude for that and remind ourselves that we’re not here by accident. But it’s also the day in which Adam and Eve did what God told them not to do – they essentially sinned, and they were forgiven. So it’s a day to celebrate: to be grateful for both second chances and new beginnings — and that’s certainly on my mind as I think about leaving the Senate and going on to the next chapter.

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