In January 2003, Joseph Lieberman announced that he would run for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 presidential election. He declared to the assembled press and the nation that he would place the presidency “above partisan politics and put our country first.”1 In the recent past, Lieberman had indeed exhibited this sort of non-partisan attitude, running for the U.S. Senate as an Independent in 2006, and functioning as a moderate Vice-Presidential nominee on the ticket with Al Gore in 2000. On many issues Joseph Liebermann walked lockstep with the Democratic Party. He was pro-choice, supported climate change legislation, and backed same-sex civil unions.2 However, as a strong supporter of the deposition of Saddam Hussein and the U.S. war in Iraq, he found himself in line with Republicans, and thus at odds with most Democrats who had come to view the war as a mistake by the 2004 election cycle.
Lieberman’s primary strategy differed from the other Democratic candidates. Rather than running to fire up the Democratic base, he cast himself as a centrist. He consistently discussed balancing budgets, promoting family values, and keeping America safe. Every other Democratic candidate spent their time focused on issues such as universal healthcare, new government programs, and the Iraq War. Lieberman’s approach included targeting certain constituencies in an attempt to win over independents, particularly women voters and veterans in key primary states.3
Lieberman sought to distance himself from other Democratic candidates that he viewed as too ambivalent concerning the Iraq War. In the summer of 2003, during a May debate in South Carolina, he heavily critiqued both Howard Dean and John Kerry regarding the war. Liebermann declared that Dean sent an uncertain message of “principled opposition to the war.” He critiqued John Kerry as well, claiming that Senator Kerry’s seeming indecision about the war “will not give the people confidence about our party’s willingness to make tough decisions to protect their security in a word after September 11th.”4 Such an outspoken approach upset many Democratic Party faithful who thought Liebermann portrayed other Democratic candidates as too radical, thereby giving Bush-Cheney plenty of attack material for the general election. In August the senator continued to publicly illustrate differences he had with other candidates. He told a crowd that he was in a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. Casting his vision as a continuation of “vital center” politics, Lieberman argued that his opponents were antiwar and proponents of expansive government.5
Lieberman had maintained this approach in the Senate for years. Following defeat in the closely contested 2000 presidential election, Liebermann returned to the United States Senate. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he became one of the most outspoken Democratic supporters of George W. Bush’s approach to the war on terror. He defended the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, agreeing that the deposition of Saddam Hussein represented a key component of the global war on terror. He also played an instrumental role in creating the Department of Homeland Security.6
Lieberman’s campaign gained steam heading into the critical New Hampshire primary in late January 2004. Only a few days before the primary on 27 January, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll projected Lieberman in third place, just behind Kerry and Dean. The campaign, according to Lieberman, had gained “Joementum.”7 Days later, the small poll bump did not translate to victory at the ballot box. Lieberman finished a disappointing 5th place.This result led him to announce that his campaign had to win the upcoming Delaware Primary to remain in the race.8 When John Kerry claimed victory in Delaware a week later, Lieberman dropped out of the campaign.
Almost immediately following the Delaware loss, Lieberman addressed supporters:
It is time to make a difficult but realistic decision, to end my quest for the presidency of the United States of America. Am I disappointed? Naturally…Am I grateful for the support that I received from all of you and so many people around the country? I am deeply grateful. Am I committed to fight for the causes I committed to fight for? You bet I am!9
In the end, it was Lieberman’s support for the Iraq War that made his candidacy so difficult to support for many Democratic primary voters in 2004. The Iraq War had become the most critical issue of the campaign season. Part of Howard Dean’s early success in the primary came from his opposition to the war. The eventual nominee John Kerry progressively took on a more pronounced anti-war position in order to appeal to the Democratic base. For his part, Lieberman never wavered in his support for the war effort. He believed that earning victory in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was a national security imperative for the United States. Unfortunately for his candidacy, Lieberman was unable to convince primary voters to see it his way.
1Adam Nagourney, “Lieberman Announces Run For the White House in ’04,” New York Times, January 14, 2003, p. A20.
2Jim VandeHei, “Lieberman Rejects Strategy of Running to the Left,” Washington Post, August 19, 2003, p. A1.
3James Vaznis, By Backing Troops, Lieberman earns Voters’ Support,” Boston Globe, March 29, 2003, p. A3.
4“Kerry on Iraq Documentary,” George Washington University, available from http://www.gwu.edu/~action/2004/ads04/rnckerryiraq.html.
5Dan Balz, “Left Means Loss, Lieberman Says,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2003.