07/17/2007 01:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lieberman, Bipartisanship and War

In 1979 I was a freshman Connecticut State Senator lucky enough to be seated next to Joe Lieberman. Lucky because he was majority leader and I could chat him up regularly, and lucky because he was funny, kind, decent and smart.

In 1988 Joe went after Lowell Weicker's U.S. Senate seat. I helped. It was Joe's first marriage with Republicans, who hated Weicker but didn't come cheap. Miami Cubans, for instance, got Joe to pledge allegiance to their witless and counterproductive embargo. True to his word, he hasn't wavered since.

In that campaign Joe stuck with Democrats on most domestic issues while appealing to Republicans on religion, patriotism and national security. He sent those messages by direct mail rather than television, making it harder for either side to tell who was getting hustled. In a nation less divided by war and wedge politics, a dove morphing into a hawk drew less attention.

Few took Joe seriously, but at the finish line he and Weicker were as close as two cards in a deck. In the biggest upset in the state's modern history, Joe won by just enough to avoid a recount.

He spent the next decade solidifying new friendships as his star rose on the right. He was the first Democratic senator to rip Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky. Some pundits called him the conscience of his party, an invitation to moralize and a dubious distinction even if true.

Still, nominating him for vice president seemed like a good idea. He calmed Clinton haters and complemented Gore, whose personality tended to seize up in public. Together they were greater than the sum of their parts.

They took a lead and held it until Joe debated Dick Cheney. Cheney, as the world now knows, is a dangerous fanatic. No matter. Joe spent the evening making political small talk and Cheney came off like your friendly neighborhood pharmacist. Gore lost his lead that night and never got enough of it back.

Four years later, Joe ran for president on a platform of bipartisanship, civil discourse and war. Democrats despised the war and had long since figured out that Joe's bipartisanship meant nothing more than doing Bush's bidding. Joe got trampled.

He went on drifting right and changed in other ways. He began attacking the motives of his adversaries, members mostly of his own party. This, more than anything, sparked the uprising that led to his primary defeat at the hands of novice Ned Lamont.

In the general election, Joe reassured war weary voters "I hear you." He lashed out at Lamont for suggesting otherwise. "I'm not for staying the course," he growled convincingly. "Nobody wants to get out of Iraq more than I do." Connecticut voters took him at his word, but it didn't work out as well for them as it had for the Miami Cubans.

Joe's "new course" turned out to be escalation. Smart of him not to mention that in any ads. He's one of Bush's two best spear carriers, the other being John McCain who, like Lieberman, began a presidential race with a lead and was last seen being trampled nearly to death by Republicans.

Last week the White House issued an interim Iraq report that claimed satisfactory progress on just eight of 18 "benchmarks" and stretched even for that. The good news in the report was almost all procedural and nearly impossible to measure: Iraq was supposed to complete a constitutional review but got a passing grade basically for forming the committee. And so on. To read it is to be sick at heart.

Unless, of course, you're Joe Lieberman, who says he read it and found nothing to cast the least doubt on our plan of action. In fact, he's now sure the war can only be lost by "defeatists at home."

According to the Associated Press, U.S Intelligence has informed Bush that Al Qaeda has grown stronger since we invaded Iraq, including in its capacity to strike us here at home. Bush may have released the interim report early in order to blast the dangerous A.P. story off the face of the news cycle.

That story needs more attention. It exposes Bush's last rationale for war and says the intelligence community knows what we know: Each day we fail to end the debacle in Iraq endangers the lives of all Americans, especially but not exclusively the brave soldiers we have sent and sent again to fight it.

The news having reached some senate Republicans, the most important bipartisan movement in a generation may be taking shape on Capitol Hill. Ironically, Mister Bipartisanship, Joe Lieberman, isn't part of it. Instead, he joins Bush in attacking the 'defeatists.'

Yes, we're approaching that final phase of a familiar cycle-- call it Viet Nam Syndrome-- when the disgraced leaders of a catastrophic war blame the outcome on those sensible and brave enough to oppose them. It is no doubt hoped that starting the post war debate now will engender enough fear among politicians to prolong the war even further.

Lieberman seems ready to engage debate on just these terms. In so doing he'd forsake civility along with bipartisanship and end up standing only for war. May he opt instead to take responsibility for his own folly, as the man I met so long ago would surely have done.