Joe Lieberman obituary | US politics

In 2000, midway through his 24 years as a US senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, who has died aged 82 following complications from a fall, was chosen as Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election, becoming America’s first, and still only, major-party Jewish vice-presidential candidate. That moment was a peak in a career that arced from the liberal left of the Democratic party to the embrace of Republicans.

He identified as a bipartisan centrist, liberal domestically and conservative on foreign policy. The Republican Jewish Coalition chairman Norm Coleman said Lieberman “put principle over politics”, but many of his early Democratic supporters found his later move rightward anathema.

Lieberman was the epitome of Connecticut’s unique politics. The small state was finely balanced between the two main parties in his youth, but the presence of John Bailey as state party “boss” and chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) gave it undue influence, which declined even as the state grew steadily more liberal.

Joe Lieberman, right, as vice-presidential candidate with Al Gore at a campaign rally in Jackson, Tennessee, in 2000. Photograph: Stephan Savoia/AP

Born in Stamford, Joe was the son of children of Jewish immigrants. His father, Henry, owned a liquor store, and his mother, Marcia (nee Manger), was a homemaker. From Stamford high school, in 1960 Joe went to Yale University, which then maintained a Jewish quota. He became editor of the Yale Daily News, and eventually was “tapped” by Yale’s top secret society, Skull and Bones. Instead, he joined the “open” Elihu Club.

In 1963, influenced by Yale’s chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, he led a student contingent to Mississippi, working first-hand to register black voters in the still segregated south. He also interned for Connecticut’s liberal Jewish senator, Abraham Ribicoff. There, he met another intern, Betty Haas; they married in 1965, by which time he had graduated with a degree in politics and economics and entered Yale Law School.

Lieberman wrote his undergraduate thesis on John Bailey, and, after interning for him at the DNC, turned that thesis into a book, The Power Broker (1966). He described Bailey as “a competent centrist who views political issues as a technician, not an ideologue” – a template for his own political approach.

With the Vietnam war dividing the country, Lieberman eventually supported Robert Kennedy after he entered the presidential race, following Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal in the face of a strong showing by the anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary. But after Kennedy’s assassination, and Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon, Lieberman joined McCarthy’s Connecticut campaign chief, Joe Duffey, to form the caucus of Connecticut Democrats.

In 1970 Duffey failed to enter the US Senate when the Democratic vote was split, but Lieberman was elected to the state Senate, and swiftly moved back toward the party’s mainstream, serving 10 years and becoming majority leader.

He ran for Congress in 1980, but the Republican Larry DeNardis branded him a “tax and spend” liberal, and rode Ronald Reagan’s coat tails to an upset win. Lieberman would never again be outflanked from the right.

When he and Betty divorced in 1981, he cited the demands of political life and his becoming “more religiously observant” as the causes. Soon afterwards, he met Hadassah Freilich, born in Prague to two Holocaust survivors, and also recently divorced. They married within a year. She worked on health and pharmaceutical issues for Lehman Brothers, Pfizer, and lobby groups including Hill & Knowlton.

Joe Lieberman and his wife Hadassah at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, 2000, where he became the US’s first, and still only, major-party Jewish vice-presidential candidate. Photograph: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

In 1983, Lieberman was elected Connecticut’s attorney general. Five years later, he won Lowell Weicker’s Senate seat in a major upset. Weicker was a liberal Republican, and Lieberman’s campaign benefited from the endorsement of the conservative journalist William F Buckley (another former Yale Daily News editor) and his even further-right brother, New York Senator James Buckley.

Re-elected in 1994 with a record 67% of the vote, Lieberman soon was chairing the “moderate” Democratic Leadership Council, where he took a very public stance against the immorality of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. In 2000, Gore chose him as running mate, partly to distance himself from Clinton, and partly because Lieberman might be able to pull the Jewish vote in the key state of Florida. This Lieberman did, but when the US supreme court shut down Florida’s recount of heavily contested ballots, they gave the state and the election to George W Bush. Despite some criticism back home about running simultaneously for his Senate seat and the vice-presidency, which Johnson had done, Lieberman won re-election easily.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Lieberman called for the creation of a Department of Homeland Security; he served on the Senate’s committee and chaired it when Democrats held the majority. In 2004, he ran in the early presidential primaries, but stopped his candidacy after a series of disappointing results.

By 2006, opposition to Bush’s war was such that, despite receiving the Senate nomination from the party, he lost a primary forced by the anti-war candidate Ned Lamont – an echo of Duffey and Lieberman 36 years previously. But Lieberman ran instead as an independent, and took 70% of the Republican vote (their official candidate registered less then 10%) to win re-election handily. However, many of his Democratic colleagues had failed to back him against the party’s own candidate.

By now, his closest allies in the Senate were Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. When McCain got the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he wanted Lieberman as his vice-president, but was persuaded that “conservatives would be pissed as hell” by such bipartisanship; he chose Sarah Palin to mollify them. Nevertheless, Lieberman endorsed the McCain/Palin ticket against Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and spoke at the Republican convention.

After the election, the Democrats held 59 Senate seats, plus Lieberman’s 60th, which would allow them to overcome Republican vetoes. In return, the Democrats let him keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security committee. His was the vote that passed Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act, but the price of his support was ditching the “public option”, creating a government agency to provide health insurance. He was criticised heavily because of his own support from the insurance industry – still strong in Connecticut – and his wife’s career in private medicine. As an “observant Jew”, Lieberman would still attend the Senate on the Sabbath, though he would walk, not take transport. He was a strong supporter of Israel, receiving the Defender of Israel award in 2009 from Christians United For Israel.

In 2012 he retired from the US Senate. He remained neutral in the presidential race between Obama and Mitt Romney, though he endorsed both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in their campaigns against Donald Trump. Lieberman moved to New York and joined Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman, a law firm whose clients included Trump, and the rightwing American Enterprise Institute. In May 2017, after Trump fired James Comey as head of the FBI, Lieberman appeared to be Trump’s pick as a replacement, but when Trump dithered, Lieberman withdrew his name from consideration.

Lieberman was a founder of the No Labels party, dedicated to finding a bipartisan alternative to either Biden or Trump in the 2024 presidential election. A week before his death, he penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he criticised Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who alleged the “political survival” of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “taken precedence over the interests of Israel”. He called it “meaningless, gratuitous and offensive”, saying it would harm “Israel’s credibility among its allies and enemies alike”.

He is survived by Hadassah; their daughter, Hana; his son, Matthew, and daughter, Rebecca, from his first marriage; and his stepson, Ethan, from his second.

Joseph Isadore Lieberman, politician, born 24 February 1942; died 27 March 2024

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