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Joe Lieberman on the Campbell Conversations

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Joe Lieberman
Joe Lieberman

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is former Senator Joe Lieberman. He represented Connecticut in the United States Senate from 1989 to 2013. He also served in the Connecticut State Senate and as the state's attorney general. In 2000, he was the Democratic Party's nominee for vice president running on the ticket with Al Gore. He's here with me today because he's the founding chair of No Labels, a centrist political organization that's behind a possible third party unity ticket for the 2024 presidential race. In a past program, I interviewed Brian Clancy, the chief strategist for No Labels. So, Senator Lieberman, thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate you taking the time to do this.

Joe Lieberman: Glad to do it, Grant, and thanks for your interest in No Labels.

GR: Well, it's a fascinating idea that you folks are putting forward. And so I've got, as you imagine, a lot of questions about it. Let me just start with the most basic one, is, please remind our listeners who may not remember the conversation I had with Brian Clancy, remind our listeners of what the Unity Ticket Project is and why it was created.

JL: Will do, and I'll give you a really quick history of No Labels. So, No Labels was founded by a woman named Nancy Jacobson, incidentally, a Syracuse University graduate who had spent most of, really pretty much all of her career working for Democratic organizations and candidates. And then in 2009, probably particularly after she watched the very partisan reaction to the financial collapse of 2008, she just decided maybe it was time to start a bipartisan organization or an organization that would try to bring some kind of bipartisan centrism and unity back to Congress. And that's how No Labels was started (in) 2010, worked hard over the years since then really to elect centrists Republicans and Democrats to Congress and then to get them working together with each other and colleagues and the other chamber. And I'm very proud of what we've done at that and really been at the bottom of some of the, unfortunately rarer accomplishments of the last years in Congress including the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS innovation bill and some of the COVID stuff. So what about the Unity Project for 2024? In a way it’s a surprising development, but honestly it comes out of the, really the thoughts and the opinions and ultimately the requests of our members around the country who said we're never really going to bridge this partisan gap in American politics. All the disunity, a dysfunction, failure to solve our problems, unless we have a president who will lead that effort. And so we decided, you know, it's too early to say whether there's really an opportunity to run a ticket, in our case it would be a bipartisan unity ticket next year. But just to keep the possibility open, let's start a major effort and it’s not easy to qualify a third line for president or vice president in each of the 50 states. That's what we're doing, we're over ten, we think we'll definitely get over 20 by the end of the year, and it's going to be a really credible movement. And then next year we're going to see is there something constructive we can do? And just briefly, Grant, we've said we'll only run a bipartisan unity ticket if we believe it has a realistic chance to win. And I know what we say that people say, well, that's ridiculous, third parties don't win. In fact, the third party hasn’t won since, of all people, Abraham Lincoln in 1860. What if you look at public opinion in America today, almost half the American people identify themselves as independents, just a little more than the cumulative (unintelligible) say I'm a Republican or Democrat. People are turning away from the two major parties because they feel like they don't do anything to deal with the things that people worry about at home. They just fight each other. And the second thing we've said is that we will only run a ticket if we're not spoilers. And by that I mean that we're not just, that we have no chance to win. Also, that we would take disproportionately from one of the two major party tickets. And of course, we're talking about a bipartisan unity ticket. Really, well, the last time it happened, it was 1864 with Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. But, because it will be a bipartisan ticket, we think that it will take equally from both parties. So that that's what we're about. I mean, just a poll in the last couple of days, almost three quarters of the people say they don’t want President Biden to run again. Almost 70% say they don't want President Trump to run again. And to us, that's the message to the two parties. But if they don't hear it, we may just decide to give the American people a third choice after Trump and Biden next year.

GR: Well, I wanted to ask you about the decision to run the ticket and to follow up on something that you said, because it's obviously, I think barring any catastrophic health issue, it's going to be the case that Joe Biden is the nominee on the Democratic side, it's an open question who's going to be the nominee on the Republican side, but Donald Trump is the frontrunner, at least based on the polls. So is your decision, your organization's decision going to be based on the fact that these two, the idea that these two candidates are deeply unacceptable to a lot of people? If, for example, a moderate Republican candidate were able to get the nomination, I imagine your thinking might change, is that right?

JL: Yeah, no question about it, our thinking would change. I mean, look, part of this is that we were, the two parties are seem to be heading toward nominating two very unpopular candidates for president. And I think part of their unpopularity is what No Labels is all about, which is that the people understand that a Trump Biden campaign will be just the typical partisan slash counter slash campaign. And then most troubling of all, whichever one of them is elected doesn't really hold any hope of a different four years in which both parties sit down, talk respectfully, compromise, and actually get something done to solve the problems that people worry about, like the economy, inflation, crime, cultural changes are America's role in a very different world. What do we do about China? What do we do about Ukraine? This stuff slides down and it really becomes a party against party, tribe against tribe, enemy against enemy. That's not the way the country gets any better. So yeah, if there was a surprise and one or both of these candidates, if Trump and Biden were not nominated and there were some more moderate or independent nominees, I think that would have a real effect on whether we would run a No Labels ticket. The odds are we probably would not, I have to catch myself, and Nancy always reminds me, No Labels can't run a campaign. We are working very hard to get on the ballot in all, for a third choice in all 50 states. But then, we will recommend a ticket, a bipartisan ticket, but then that ticket has to qualify under the federal election laws. And we can't, we're a nonprofit corporation.

GR: Right. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with former United States Senator Joe Lieberman. So the obvious question is, how is this effort being received by the two parties so far?

JL: Yeah, well, not well…

GR: (laughter)

JL: Particularly not by the Democrats. And it's not surprising, Grant, because we are challenging not just the two candidates, Trump and Biden. Really, what No Labels is doing in talking about a bipartisan unity ticket is challenging the political status quo in America which the Republicans and Democrats control, and that's threatening to them. There's a professor at Harvard, Michael Porter, who describes the two parties control over American politics as a duopoly, not a monopoly, but that they have a kind of, even though they fight each other and tear each other's face off, they have a ground on which they agree, which is let's keep it just us. And we're trying to break down the door and get in there where I think a majority of the American people want us to be. Now, the Democrats have reached, or some of them have reached some kind of conclusion that the inevitable result of a bipartisan unity ticket, the fourth on the No Labels third line will be to elect Trump. But I don't get that because as I said, it's going to be a bipartisan ticket. We think it'll draw equally from both parties as Ross Perot did in 1992. And we keep saying over and over again, we're not going to be spoilers. We're only going to do this if we think we have a realistic chance to win. Let me (unintelligible) with the latest data where I think we have a realistic chance to win. We just completed, No Labels, a poll of almost 10,000 voters in the eight swing states, which have pretty much decided the last two presidential races. And if you ask people if their choice is Trump, Biden or a moderate independent choice. 63% said they're open to a moderate, independent choice. Now, I understand that's open too, ultimately there's got to be some names up there that they have to like. But that really tells you that, and it's coming from both parties. So we basically said to people in both parties, including most of the Democrats are really attacking No Labels, just relax a little bit here.

GR: (laughter)

JL: And incidentally, maybe what you should be thinking about is whether the two candidates you've got, Biden and Trump, are really the strongest candidates for you to be running. And maybe that's the response you should give instead of attacking us for somehow trying to break down the door of this two party duopoly in American politics.

GR: So I wanted to ask you a question about the Democratic Party's resistance to your effort, because I think it's fair to say, at least since 2016, that one of the main central messages of the Democratic Party is that they are the party of small-D democracy. And they're standing up for small-D democracy. Do you think the party's behavior toward you folks undermines that claim?

JL: I do. Thanks for asking that question. When you think about it, what they're saying is the Democrats who are trying to stop No Labels, you don't really have a right to try to get, or maybe you have a right but we don't think it's a right you should be able to exercise to try to get a third line on the ballot to get access to the ballot. Incidentally, there are Supreme Court decisions, particularly beginning with efforts to stifle civil rights groups that say that gaining access to the ballot is a constitutionally protected right. So, I always say and I have said in the last few months to the Democrats who are attacking us, you have every right to disagree with what we're doing and to say so in strong terms. But when you do what we've seen them do now in Arizona, Maine, and to some extent North Carolina, which is to convince Democratic election officials, state officials to use their power to try to block No Labels getting out a third line, even when we satisfy every legal requirement. We put in enough legal signatures of all the rest, that really is unconstitutional. And I said this once before and they really got angry at me. It's actually potentially a crime because the law says that two or more people cannot conspire to deny other Americans their constitutional rights. And that can be a crime under our criminal code of the United States government. So I think the, look, I understand what the Democrats say when they say they’re the party of democracy because Trump has done things that certainly seem anti-democratic, but in this case, the Democrats themselves in trying to stop us from doing what is our constitutional right to get on the ballot, to run a third unity ticket, to give the American voters a third choice, that's unconstitutional. Really, in a way, it's the kind of voter suppression, which, of course, Democrats always oppose, rightfully, because it's often used to try to suppress minority voters who are likely to be Democratic voters.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with former United States senator and founding chair of No Labels, Joe Lieberman. And we've been discussing No Labels’ possible sponsorship of a third party effort in the 2024 presidential elections called the Unity Ticket. So, before the break, we were talking about the Democratic Party's pushback against this effort. I wanted to ask you a little bit more personal question about that, if I could. I mean, this is your party, after all…

JL: Yeah.

GR: You know, you ran in a presidential race under this label. So, are you disappointed at a personal level or do you just kind of chalk it up to, well, this is politics, this is the way things work?

JL: No, I am disappointed, although I must say I’ve had greater disappointments with the Democratic Party over the course of my career. But if you would have said to me that I'd end up in this place advocating for at least the possibility of a third party ticket for president or vice president next year, I wouldn't have believed it. But it's just based on what I've seen. I mean, when I said I had tougher moments, you know, in 2006, I ran for reelection to the U.S. Senate and basically I lost the primary, was close, but I lost it. And, you know, it was based on the Iraq war which I understood. It was a very difficult decision, difficult for me, I was obviously not being opposed to our retreating from Iraq because although it would help me politically, but I thought it was the right thing to do. And I was disappointed that so many Democrats that I had helped over the years, and then I had advocated on behalf of other issues, turned away from me. And people kept quoting to me the Ronald Reagan line, that because you started out as a Democrat, where he said, I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me. But I will tell you that I, even when I ran as an independent in Connecticut, and thank God and the voters of Connecticut I got reelected, I never left the Democratic Party, I still am a registered Democrat. But, you know, I've been disappointed by it. And this really slash and burn reaction of some Democrats toward No Labels’ exploration of a third party bipartisan unity ticket has been disappointing to me. But I feel very strongly that what we're doing is the right thing and it doesn't deter me at all. I mean, maybe it's because I'm now out of office and I'm not really thinking about the next election.

GR: (laughter)

JL: I'm trying to see if there's some way at this stage and chapter of my life I can contribute to the betterment of the country. And I really think that this is one of the ways.

GR: You've addressed the issue of this ticket being a spoiler and that the ways in which you're trying to build into the process that you don't do that. If you don't mind, I did want to ask you, though, a question about the 2000 election in that regard…

JL: Sure.

GR: ..as I have you here and I can't resist.

JL: No, go ahead.

GR: And so you and Al Gore ran for president and vice president in 2000 against George W Bush and Dick Cheney. A lot of Democrats blamed your loss on Ralph Nader's third party run that year, he was the spoiler. Do you agree with that?

JL: Well, you know, I'm not sure. And I know it's a funny thing to say. The exit polling in Florida suggested interestingly, surprisingly to me, that Nader took, pretty much equally votes that would have gone to Bush-Cheney or Al Gore and me, hard to believe that but for different reasons, different kind of voters. But there's no question Nader had an effect, I think, in states like New Hampshire too, where, you know, it was so close in 2000 that if we had carried New Hampshire, Al Gore and I, we would have been elected. Just that few, I think they have four electoral votes, maybe even three, I think four, they have four. That would have been enough to have won the election. But here's the difference, Nader was always a spoiler. He was a, if you will, a protest or ideological candidate to put it in more positive terms of being a spoiler, which is to say that nobody, including Nader, thought he had a chance to win. This is a big difference because as I said earlier, Grant, if No Labels runs a bipartisan unity ticket, it is because to the best of our ability, we believe it has a realistic chance to win. And based on the data that we're getting now, we think if we come up with the right candidates, that we can do that. I mean, when you think about it, you've got those eight swing states that I talked about earlier. 63% of the people say they're open to a moderate independent ticket. Most states in America or their electoral votes, almost all except two, on a winner take all basis. That means that our ticket could carry a state with 35% of the vote.

GR: Right.

JL: And right now, I'd say that's quite feasible. Considering the attitudes, the really negative attitudes toward Trump and Biden.

GR: Yeah, the other thing I would just say editorially is Al Gore is not Joe Biden, and certainly George W. Bush is not Donald Trump. If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is former United States Senator Joe Lieberman. Even more sensitive question, if I may, I'm going to ask some different questions now…

JL: Sure, go ahead.

GR: Based on my reading of the 2000 election, my understanding is that you were one of the folks in the campaign's inner circle that was advocating that Al Gore continue his challenge of the election outcome beyond what he did. And you can correct me on that if I'm wrong, but if that's right, I'm just wondering whether you've rethought that moment given what we saw in 2020.

JL: Yeah, no, both are right.

GR: (laughter) Okay.

JL: I’ll tell you the story briefly. So it was on a Friday in December of 2000 that basically our side won the case in the Florida Supreme Court, we thought it was over. And then the Bush campaign asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, which we never thought they would. There was no precedent for it, basically because, and it was sort of brought up, again, you might say, around the Electoral College this in 2020, that these are state law questions. Anyway, the case was argued the following Monday in the Supreme Court and on Tuesday night about 10:00 or 10:30, Al Gore called me and said he had just heard from our lawyers that the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Bush. And he said that he was disappointed, he knew I would be. But he said the lawyers had told him that there was language in the Supreme Court decision that arguably, as we say in the law, enabled us to go back to the Florida Supreme Court and ask for a recount of the votes statewide. What did I think? So I said, you know, Al, I haven't seen the decision so I'm going to react based on my own experience, particularly as Attorney General of Connecticut, but also which is, if you think you have a plausible chance on appeal, which this would be, and particularly if our lawyers are right, that the US Supreme Court has said of Bush V. Gore, that we have a right to go back to the Florida Supreme Court, there’s so much on the line for our country, I would say that we should do it. So he called me back, it was after midnight and he said, I made a decision and I'm not happy with my decision and you won't be. But I think we've got to end this because if we go to the Florida Supreme Court, it's highly unlikely that a statewide recount would be completed by January 20th. Therefore, we will not have the orderly transfer of power, according to the Constitution. And, you know, I accepted it, of course, with a respect. As I look back at it, particularly having gone through 2020 and President Trump's refusal to accept the results, refusal to accept the fact that he lost, I think, 60 or 61 court cases to try to overturn the election, I think Al Gore probably took it to a higher level than I was as a former attorney general and he did the right thing for the country. So that's my story today.

GR: We've only got about another minute and I want to squeeze in one more question if I can. And it's a simple one that it was going to be difficult to answer in less than a minute. But, do you think within the two parties, not your Unity Party ticket ever, but within the two parties, there is still room for moderates to emerge as leaders?

JL: I hope so. I mean, I can tell you that in our No Labels work in Congress, we really have helped to elect the centrist. A lot of Democrats and Republicans in Congress are, you might say, the biggest victims of the partisanship, because they worked so hard, they come to Congress and then they get pushed into these warring camps. So, that's why we have 60 members of our House Problem Solvers caucus equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Ten in the Senate and they work together and they get a lot done. Could they become leaders? I don't know yet really, because both parties are still dominated by the more extreme ideologies. But I'll tell you this, I'm an optimist and I think the public is so fed up with the political status quo and the two major parties that there's going to be an uprising. Remember, Thomas Jefferson said he thought it was a good thing for there to be a little rebellion in American politics every so often. As important as storms in the physical world are, in other words, clear out the dead wood basically.

GR: (laughter)

JL: I think we may be at that point right now in American politics.

GR: We'll have to leave it there. I could talk to you for hours, but Senator Lieberman, thanks so much for this, it's really been a thrill for me to talk to you. I remember when you first ran for U.S. Senate against Lowell Weicker and it's going to be an interesting year politically, to say the very least. So thank you.

JL: It is. Thank you, Grant. Take care.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.