Episode 43

The Centrist Solution

with Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT)

January 6, 2022

Share Episode
Share on email
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on facebook




Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT)
Former United States Senator

Senator Joe Lieberman served 24 years in the United States Senate, representing the state of Connecticut, and was the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee in 2000. He is honorary national co-chair of No Labels, an American political organization composed of Republicans, Democrats and Independents whose mission is to “usher in a new era of focused problem solving in American politics.” He is also co-chair of the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project and the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense while serving on the Board of Trustees for The McCain Institute for International Leadership, the Board of Trustees for the Institute for the Study of War, and the Board of Directors of the Center for a New American Security.

During his tenure, Senator Lieberman helped shape legislation in virtually every major area of public policy and served in many leadership roles, including as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

He is currently senior counsel at the law firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres where he applies the investigative skills he honed as United States Senator and Attorney General of the State of Connecticut to represent clients in independent and internal investigations and advise them on a wide range of public policy, strategic and regulatory issues.

Once you become a leader, you need to make a difference. It's not just about staying in power, there's got to be a reason you work so hard.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT) Tweet



Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 0:48
Since he was 10 years old, Senator Joseph Lieberman knew he was a centrist. His career has spanned state and federal politics as a state senator, state Attorney General, Vice Presidential candidate, and United States Senator from my home state of Connecticut. His career is defined by his bipartisan approach and belief in compromise. We discuss factors contributing to the growing partisan divide, such as gerrymandering, money in politics, and social media. Reflecting on his own experience, Senator Lieberman found that bipartisan policy is just good politics. Typically, bills need votes from both sides of the aisle to pass. And bipartisan legislation generally has durability, regardless of which party is in the majority. To achieve a more centrist future. Senator Lieberman co-chairs an organization called No Labels, which convenes Republicans, Democrats, and independents to foster non-partisan policy solutions and provide funding for moderate primary candidates. For young leaders interested in public service. Senator Lieberman advises that they cultivate stamina, take risks, and earn the trust of their colleagues and constituents.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 2:02
Well, good afternoon, Senator Lieberman, and welcome.

Senator Lieberman 2:05
Thank you, Gary, great to be with you.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 2:07
We’re pleased to have you at this microphone. And congratulations on such a distinguished career as a political leader, both in my home state of Connecticut as well as yours of course, and with the United States. Your career, 24 years as a Senator, Vice Presidential candidate in 2000. You actually won the popular vote in that election, of course. And then in 2006, due to some circumstances in Connecticut, you ended up running for the Senate as an independent and won. And, of course, very successful career as a legislator. But you’ve recently written a book, “The Centrist Solution”, just recently published, already on my top five list, by the way, I love the book. And we’d like to explore that with you a bit. You know, I’ve read that these times are the most partisan times since the Civil War. I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration. But how do you think about that, Senator?

Senator Lieberman 3:09
Well, I think that’s probably right from what I know of American history. I can certainly say this, that these are the most partisan times in America since I got involved in politics, which was the late 60s, early 70s. So that’s, by now, I’ve reached a stage of life where that’s a pretty good sweep of decades. And it’s really unfortunate, which is to say it’s gone in the wrong direction because the partisanship gets in the way of problem solving, which our country really needs.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 3:44
Well, one comment you made in the book, “The Centrist Solution”, was that, during your 24 years in the US Senate, times became much more partisan and life in the Senate became more partisan. Do you have any feel, Senator, for what’s caused this partisanship?

Senator Lieberman 4:00
Yah I do. I don’t think it’s a single cause. But there are several and this won’t shock anybody because they’re usually mentioned. I mean, part of it is a system that discourages risk taking. People in business understand, and people in politics should, I do from my own career, that the biggest steps forward I took were when I took the biggest risks. Sometimes you fail. But if you succeed, you do in a big way. And if you have a new idea, it’s really an element of progress. So why aew people afraid to take risks? And in this case, particularly, as the title of the book, “The Centrist Solution” suggests, the risk of going to the center and trying to find common ground with people who don’t share your party or your ideology, but, like you, want to get something done on a particular problem. And to do that, you got to negotiate, you got to compromise, not on your morals or ethics, but on how much you expect to get on that particular bill. And that’s the way you get things done. So what’s happened over decades, really, slowly, but really destructively is the gerrymandering of districts, which have made most House districts in Washington and a number of states based on one party politics in the state uncompetitive on Election Day. The big deal is, can he get the nomination? So if you’re a Democrat, you’re probably looking over your shoulder to make sure nobody catches up with you on the left. Or a Republican looking over your shoulder to make sure nobody gets ready to challenge you and maybe beat you on the right. And therefore you tailor your position and you end up maybe getting reelected, but you don’t end up playing a very constructive role. The other factors are too much money in politics, which enables parties to control a source of funding, too many of the actions of elected officials, the partisan – I think it’s a word I made up or others – the partisanization of the media. I mean, in my lifetime, I remember the age of Walter Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, etc. I had no idea whether they were liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat. They reported the news. No more. The news, cable news particularly, and social media are intensely partisan and people end up going to those stations or sites to validate their own point of view. And elected officials begin to play to those sites and stations so they get more attention. So I mean, those are some of the factors. There’s also been a sort of a cultural decline, I think, in our country, generally. Maybe it’s started or was affected by the entertainment culture and by the Internet, much less civility among people, fewer rules about what you can say about somebody else in public. And this naturally feeds into politics, where political discourse, which has always been heated in American politics, is now really nasty, widely disseminated, and makes it very hard for people on one side to sit down at a table and try to negotiate a solution to a problem when people on the other side have just called them a traitor, or a thug, or a crook. So all of those have contributed and I work a lot through an organization I co-chair called No Labels, which is trying to get us back to where we were. Ever since the beginning, and I’m talking about the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, we have solved our biggest problems and made the biggest steps forward by coming to the center and negotiating, getting things done.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 8:09
Yeah, all of that makes makes good sense as an explanation for it. And I’m sure you see some of what we see, which is, I start worrying about whether we’ll have the best and the brightest willing to run for office, which was always the case. But gosh, now it’s such a difficult situation that you just wonder if the quality of our elected officials is going to possibly decline a bit.

Senator Lieberman 8:39
Well, I worry about it and I worry about it particularly among young people and the best of the rising generation. But I must say a lot of them still want to get involved. Maybe it’s the, whatever, the idealism, or a sort of confidence of youth, that it makes them feel, in some ways because things are bad in government now, that they can make it better. Of course, I always really encourage them. But there’s no question that a certain number of people either don’t run or they leave office earlier than they otherwise would because it’s just not worth it.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 9:19
Talk about terms for a moment. Do you distinguish between centrism and non-partisanship? Does that have a difference?

Senator Lieberman 9:28
Yeah, that’s that’s a really good question. First thing that I do in the book, and it’s very important to me, because the terms are maybe confusing and misunderstood. Centrism isn’t the same as moderation. It’s not sort of finding that middle point between left and right. Centrism is the willingness of people on the left and right, Democrat, Republican, independent, moderate, to come to the center, which is another way of saying, find common ground so they can sit down and try to negotiate a solution. Centrism almost inevitably, in Congress, it involves bipartisanship. So in a way, it’s closer to bipartisanship than it is to moderation.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 10:18
In the book you described your interest in centrism or the fact that you gravitated toward being a centrist when you were 10 years old. Can you share that with us please, Senator?

Senator Lieberman 10:32
Yeah, well, I think back to my very first political memory. Stamford, Connecticut, it’s election night in 1952. We live at that point in a second floor, as they used to say, cold water walk up in my grandma’s house, my mother’s mother. And we’re watching TV and my dad, really, was the first in the neighborhood to buy a TV. It was about the size of a bureau. And the screen was about the size of my smartphone screen. But we watched the returns of the presidential election. So my grandmother and I, quite naturally it seems to me, are going for General Eisenhower. I mean, he’s the one who won the Second World War. He stopped the Nazis, you know, in Europe. And then I see, as the evening goes on, that my mom and dad are going for this guy, Stevenson. And I don’t get it. I was too respectful at 10 to figure it out. But later on, as I record in the book, I talked to my dad about it a couple years later and I said, “was it because you always supported the Democrat?” “Oh no, I just thought that, as great a hero as Ike was, he really didn’t have the background to be a great president and Stevenson had been governor, and he was smart, all that stuff. But I remember my dad said, “listen, you don’t know this, but, 1940, I voted for Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate against Roosevelt, because I thought two terms was enough and I thought Wilkie was a really independent minded, accomplished business leader and internationalist”, etc, etc. So that surprised me. And those lessons stayed with me probably more than you’d imagine as an impressionistic 10 year old who had no real interest in politics at that point, but maybe later on thought about it and went back to that day when I was 10 years old.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 12:30
I remember Eisenhower’s logo, “I like Ike.”

Senator Lieberman 12:34

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 12:35
That’s what he ran on, right?

Senator Lieberman 12:37
Yeah. Incidentally, he turned out, and I was young then of course, and it’s true of my generation. He was he seemed kind of boring and out of it to us. We all got excited about President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy. But looking back in later years, Ike was a pretty damn good president. So he may be not exciting. But, he made a lot of good things happen for the country.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 13:05
Yeah. And he had a practicality about him that that was appealing, I think. You were known when you went to the Senate and throughout your career, really, you were known as somebody who would work across the aisle in the best sense of that word. Is that even possible today in the US Senate?

Senator Lieberman 13:25
Yeah, it is possible. I mean, I did it. I always felt, certainly when I ran for Attorney General and Senator, although my State Senate district was pretty Democratic, so I didn’t have to do it for that reason. But I learned a lot. I was the Majority Leader of the State Senate for six of the ten years I was there and I really worked closely with the Republican leaders who became really best friends of mine, and we were able to achieve some centrist bipartisan solutions. And when I got to the US Senate, it was really clear to me that if I wanted to get anything done, I had to have Republican partners, and friends, and allies because you needed 60 votes to break a filibuster. And as you said earlier when we talked, the reality is that if you do something with only votes from one party, that accomplishment may not last when the other party that takes over the majority, which it will. So is it possible today? It is. And honestly, that’s part of the reason I wrote the book, to say, hopefully to members of Congress, look, this wasn’t rocket science when we worked across party lines. We just had the will to do it. And we were willing to take some risks to make it happen. But the truth is it was good politics too. And I think people in Connecticut, in which there are a lot of independent voters, really were happy when I was able to come back and say, “I’m proud to say that this is what I was able to get done for Connecticut this year, or the country, and I did it across party lines”, instead of coming back, as too often happens in our politics today, where the incumbent says, “I tried to get this done for you, but those bums in the other party stopped me”. That’s a lame excuse. But it is possible. Part of what No Labels tries to encourage and enable, it’s not happening as much as it should, not happening very often at all because of those counter problem solving centrist solution factors that we talked about. But in just the recent month or two, there was a very good bipartisan infrastructure reform bill adopted across party lines and with the President. And there have been some bipartisan agreements not to have a government stopping economy threatening fight over the debt limit extension, for instance. So it’s still possible. But in too many of the big issues, and problems, and opportunities that our country has, the two parties’ instinct is to fight each other. If you say, “if you support A, I’m going to support B”, and that’s irrational, and actually immoral.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 16:18
Yeah. It’s not good. That’s for sure. It’s not productive. How do you read Senator Manchin, who’s really got his hands full now? But obviously, he feels pressure of his constituents, and on the other hand, the administration. What does a guy like that do when he’s kind of stuck in the middle like that?

Senator Lieberman 16:38
Yeah, well, as Clinton used to say, I can feel his pain. I mean, I had occasions when I was one, or one of two or three Democrats who just felt differently about a big issue, like whether we should retreat from Iraq, or whether there should be a kind of national governmental health insurance healthcare as a part of Obamacare. So it’s uncomfortable because you’re disagreeing with almost all your colleagues in your party caucus, which is an important part of your life. But honestly, you’re there to do what you think is right, and to try to do the best for your country and your constituents. So I know what Joe is going through now. But I also know that his independence on these matters, including this Build Back Better bill, the $1.75 trillion additional spending on social programs and all, is quite sincere and it’s quite consistent with the rest of his career going back to West Virginia state government. He really is a centrist and he is fiscally responsible, so he’s worried about the impact of the so called Build Back Better bill. He has the power to stop it in himself because it’s 50/50 in the Senate. And he’s used a really excellent word, which is he said he really supports a pause. And I think what he’s saying there is not that he’s unalterably opposed to what’s in the Build Back Better bill, but he wants to pause it. And I think in part so it gets more detailed consideration, review, bipartisan involvement than it has so far. But also, he’s worried about inflation. And I think he’s right to wait and see, how are we going to look next year, six months from now, a year from now? How is the economy gonna look? How are we going to look when it comes to the virus? One person can really stop something or pass it and I hope Joe Manchin uses the authority he has to press the pause button on this bill. And I would say, if I had to predict, and I really don’t know though we’re good friends, Joe and I, that he’s gonna say pause. I think, Gary, that it’ll not only be good for the country. But I think it’ll be good for the Democratic Party, even though most Democrats don’t feel that way. Because I think, if it passes, it’ll be a target for Republicans, essentially saying it’s wasteful, but also inflationary. And every time you go to buy gas, or bread, or whatever, or a consumer good’s price is higher than you want to pay, they’re gonna come back and blame this second, this additional $2 trillion at least of federal spending.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 19:32
Yeah, I agree with your analysis on that, Senator. You know, a lot of my friends, people I travel with, kind of have a pipe dream, and I’d just like to have you comment on it. And they’re thinking, you know, if we got the moderates from the Republicans, the moderates from the Democrats, and all the independents, that’s a pretty hefty group. Is there any way that you think that that might unfold in the time ahead?

Senator Lieberman 20:00
Well, it’s possible. You know, I was just at a meeting in Stamford and there were three or four people around the table. We were waiting for somebody else. Naturally, we started talking politics. And the others around the table all said they’re not comfortable in either political party today. I bet, and the polling seems to suggest it, that that actually represents a majority of the American people. But the parties controlled by left and right don’t give them those choices. Often, the parties in the nominating process go left and right for President, but the candidates try to move back toward the center for Election Day. But if the two parties don’t come to the center more than they have, then I think, for the first time in American history, since 1860, which is the last time we had a successful third party, which was the Republicans with Abraham Lincoln. In No Labels, we try to work through the two major parties to build a sort of bipartisan platform for centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans. And it worked. It’s worked in a couple of cases on one of the first pandemic response bills in between Trump and Biden coming in, and it worked on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, in which case, the No Labels members of Congress really played the central role in both. But honestly, if it doesn’t work, I will go out on a limb and say that 2024, and it depends who is nominated. If the Republicans go again with President Trump, or somebody like Trump, and the Democrats go further left, there’s gonna be a lot of people who want a third choice. And it might happen.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 21:57
It might happen. Yeah, under that circumstance, it might. Senator, this could be a good place to discuss No Labels. I know you’re very active in that group. Frankly, I hadn’t been aware of it until I read the book. Can you describe No Labels for us and what’s behind it and so on?

Senator Lieberman 22:15
Yeah, sure can Well, I mean, not so much in American life, public or private. It was the initiative, persistence, and persistence of one person, a woman named Nancy Jacobson, who had spent the previous decade or two of her career working for Democratic candidates, often helping raise money. In 2009, I’m sure affected by her husband, Mark Penn, who I know was upset about it, they were really upset about how partisan the response was to the economic collapse in the US of 2008, which came to be known as the Great Recession. And Nancy made a personal decision that she was going to try to do something about it by forming an organization. She came to me at that time, and I encouraged her because it was in the Senate, so I couldn’t get too active, I put my name on the advisory board. But she worked on and she launched it in December of 2010 in New York with about 1,000 people from around the country there, just about 11 years ago, almost today. And it’s really grown. It hasn’t been a straight line up. I mean, at the beginning, she just tried to get Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to sit together and talk, which they rarely did. Then, we tried to give them ideas about programs or initiatives that we thought were bipartisan. And we polled them and they did well. Well that gained a little more, but then we decided that this is about politics. And a lot of it is about the threats that the parties and interest groups make to members of the House and Senate that, if they don’t do what they’re being asked to do, they’ll lose campaign support, including financial support. So we set up a separate operation to raise money for centrist Republicans and Democrats. And we did it in two primaries, one Republican, one Democrat. Won both of them in 2016. And then in 2018, did it more broadly, gave us enough support that, in the session of Congress in 2019 in the House, they formed the House Problem Solvers caucus, now 58 members, 29 of each party. The Senate formed what they call their Common Sense Coalition, led by the aforementioned Joe Manchin and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. And then we held bicameral dinners at which we try to get the two houses together and the two parties together, which rarely happens on Capitol Hill today. I mean, you’re from New Canaan. I’ll tell you that I hardly ever saw the Connecticut House delegation in Washington. I’d see him all the time in Connecticut at the events we were at together. And when we did that, we brought them together for breakfast or dinner and there was a synergy, and they started to work together on things. So we continue to work on that and we feel that these centrists in both houses of both parties have made a difference, but they’re still fighting against these strong counter pressures. And we’re gonna stick with them. And we’ve got a wonderful group of really quite successful American business leaders who sustain No Labels and the separate political fundraising operation. And I must say that a lot of times we’ve had members of Congress come through our meeting just before the pandemic, but now, virtually, I never have been present in a time when any of our business leaders, who contribute a lot to the organization, have ever raised a question about their business, or their taxes, or anything else. They’re in it because they’re worried about the future of our country. And they’re worried about the ineffectiveness of our government and the way in which that has aroused among the American people not just this disappointment, but distrust. And that’s a very corrosive factor in a democracy, which in our case, in our time, has tended actually to divide the American people more along political lines, let alone Congress, than ever before.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 26:49
Yeah, well, I think one of the positives of the book, “The Centrist Solution”, is going to be visibility for No Labels. I think that’s one of the really good things that’s going to come out of this. I know I’m particularly interested in it and I’m sure many of the people I travel with are as well.

Senator Lieberman 27:08
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say we have a website. There’s a lot of information there if you want to know more about it and there’s a lot to do. We’ve won some battles, but the Lord knows we haven’t won the war for a centrist problem solving government. So we need your help.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 27:26
Yeah, absolutely. Well, the two things, one, buy the book. And two, go to the No Labels website. Those are the two things we want our audience to do here for sure. Senator, looking at your distinguished career, this show is about leadership and leadership lessons. I’m just wondering if, during your 24 years in the Senate, can you walk away with, here’s two or three lessons on leadership that I took away, is it possible to kind of answer that question?

Senator Lieberman 27:58
Sometimes young people come and ask me about how they should get into politics and what they should expect. What do they need to do? Well, I usually surprise them by telling them they should read history and biographies to get a better sense of the impact that leaders can have on societies, good or bad, and maybe form a judgment about whether they want to get involved. But I also tell them, and they may not naturally think about this when they’re young, that part of what you need to succeed in politics, probably in most things in life, is physical and intellectual stamina. Of course, you need to be persistent because it’s hard work. And the way to succeed is by working hard and not giving up. The second thing, once you get to be a leader, is what we talked about earlier. And that is to try to make a difference. I mean, being a leader cannot be just about staying in power. There’s got to be a reason you worked so hard and used all that stamina to get elected. And it is to make a difference, hopefully for the better. That means taking risks, as I said earlier. So those are two rules. The other thing I would say also relates to something we talked about, in part, which is that a leader has to be willing to lead, to step out in front. But to be an effective leader, you’ve got to have earned the trust, admiration, even the affection of the people you’re aiming to lead. And so I always say that the Senate is a place where, as we said earlier, the big headlines, big issues and all. But it really is also 100 people going to work at the same place every day and the extent to which your colleagues like you, but more important, trust you because they’ve trusted you and you haven’t let them down, enables you to be a leader. And so those are three quick lessons that come out of it: stamina, risk taking, and earn the confidence of your colleagues and your constituents, of course.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 30:20
Right. Well said. Senator, we’re bumping up against a bit of a time issue from your side and I’m wondering if we can finagle our way into another interview with you at some point in the near future? We’d love that. I’ve got one last question if I could, and that is, for leaders who need to make an unpopular decision, what goes through your mind? I mean, how do you process that kind of situation? You know, when it comes to Iraq, and a number of other cases where you went through this, how do you kind of work your way through that?

Senator Lieberman 30:59
Right. So if you’re going to make that unpopular decision, being a leader in that way, you got to think it through yourself. But you also have to be willing to talk to people, as you’re in your decision making, who may not agree with you about the direction in which you think you’re going, so you get a sense of what the arguments are on the other side. And there’s where leadership also involves education. I mean, certainly in a democracy, probably in a business as well, it’s a different kind of structure than being an elected official. On the other hand, while you can just say, this is what I’ve decided, this is what’s going to happen, do it, you’re going to be a lot more effective as a leader in business, but also in government, if you can explain why you’re doing it and what you hope good will come out of it. And frankly, you do it with a certain amount of humility because nobody’s ever 100% correct. But I always felt, in politics, probably true in other areas of life, that generally speaking, if your constituents feel that you tried to do what you thought was right, even if they disagreed with you sometimes, that they stick with you. And generally speaking, but not always, that was the case. So that’s my answer. Hey, we’ll do it again. And it allows me instead of saying goodbye to say, Gary, until next time.

Gary Bisbee, Ph.D. 32:40
I love it. Well said, Senator, very much enjoyed our time today.

Subscribe for Updates​

For exclusive access to Think Medium content and program updates, subscribe here.