Yes, I do know that being a Democrat or a Republican is not a religious affiliation. But when you are the number two nominee of one party and then you leave and follow around the number one nominee of the rival party, well I am on firm ground using the metaphor of apostate here.
It is safe to say that nobody in the spurned religion likes an apostate. Joe made his bed. Now he has to sleep in it.
Lieberman Finds Middle a Tricky Path
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON — Joseph I. Lieberman, lapsed Democrat of Connecticut, strolled into the weekly lunch of the Senate Democrats last Tuesday, unaccompanied by a food taster.
He greeted his colleagues, including some who felt he should not have been there. He ate his lunch (salad, eschewing the mac and cheese) and sat through a discussion about gasoline prices and Medicare.
Then the conversation veered into the danger zone, the presidential election — specifically, Senator John McCain’s recent votes, or nonvotes, on energy policy.
At which point Mr. Lieberman walked out.
“I just didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to be there,” Mr. Lieberman explained the next day.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, who said that a colleague approached him afterward to complain about Mr. Lieberman’s showing up. “This is a delicate situation,” Mr. Durbin summed up.
It has grown increasingly so for Mr. Lieberman, once his party’s vice-presidential candidate and now a self-styled “independent Democrat.” He has zigzagged the country on behalf of Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and, in recent weeks, amplified his criticism of Senator Barack Obama to a point that has infuriated many of his Democratic colleagues.
At least two have asked Mr. Lieberman to tone down his rhetoric against Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, two colleagues said, and at least three have advised Mr. Lieberman against speaking at the Republican convention, a prospect he has said he would entertain.
Clearly, Mr. Lieberman’s already precarious marriage with the Democrats has reached a new level of discord and could be approaching divorce, if not necessarily a remarriage into the Republican Party. The strain has been rooted largely in Mr. Lieberman’s steadfast support for the Bush administration’s engagement in Iraq and his hawkish views on Iran. He has not ruled out switching parties but has stopped short of saying he has moved so far from the Democratic Party — or, in his view, the other way around — that he is at a point of no return.
“I don’t have any line that I have in my mind,” Mr. Lieberman said in an interview. “If it happened, I’d know it when I saw it.”
Mr. Lieberman was leaning back in a chair in his Senate office, wearing a loose-fitting pinstriped suit, grinning a lot and appearing quite comfortable while describing “my uncomfortable position.” He compared his predicament to the old Groucho Marx conceit, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
As Mr. Lieberman spoke, a group of protesters not far from his office were calling for his party to oust him as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The organization, unsubtly named LiebermanMustGo, was delivering a petition proclaiming the same.
Will the protest or petition have any effect on him? “No,” he said, shrugging, which is his preferred coping method (and which he did about two dozen times in 45 minutes).
“I think most people in his caucus expected Joe’s views on national security, but I think the extent of his embrace of McCain has surprised some people,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, one of Mr. Lieberman’s closest friends in the Senate. “That’s taking an extra step.”
Democrats complain that he has gone even further with his ramped-up attacks on Mr. Obama. “The fact that the spokesperson for Hamas would say they would welcome the election of Senator Obama really does raise the question, Why?” Mr. Lieberman said recently on CNN. A few days later on Fox News he called Mr. Obama “naïve” in his views on Iran.
In his office on Wednesday, Mr. Lieberman spoke of what he called Mr. Obama’s “remarkable change of position” on a variety of issues.
“Senator Obama has really moved,” Mr. Lieberman said. “Since he clinched the nomination a month ago, in my opinion he has altered and nuanced more big positions more quickly than I can remember any other presidential nominees.”
This line of criticism was consistent with Republican attacks last week against Mr. Obama. When asked if he received “talking points” from the McCain campaign or the Republican National Committee, Mr. Lieberman replied, “I usually don’t.”
He added that he was having a blast with Mr. McCain on the campaign trail, accompanying him on a trip to Colombia and Mexico this month. He has been a regular on Mr. McCain’s Three Amigos circuit, which includes Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
All of which has angered his Democratic friends, or former friends.
“I think there’s a difference in the way Joe has been treated now by people in his caucus compared to the beginning of last year,” Ms. Collins said. That was when Mr. Lieberman returned to the Senate after losing the Connecticut Democratic primary, running as an “independent Democrat” and prevailing in the general election.
Mr. Lieberman continued to vote with his party most of the time, while the Democrats, clinging to a 51-to-49 majority, smiled tightly and tried to hold on to their flight-risk colleague.
It has been tough, though. Mr. Lieberman has declared himself “liberated” from the shackles of party affiliation and seemed to delight in bucking Democrats on foreign policy matters. “There were times in my career where I really wanted to be supported, dare I say liked, by everyone,” Mr. Lieberman said in the interview.
Not so now. One of the last entries in the guest register of Mr. Lieberman’s office said, simply, “You are crazy. No war with Iran.”
Mr. Lieberman said he had felt no ill will from Senate Democrats, though queries about him tend to elicit squirms. While entering the Tuesday lunch, many senators waved off questions about their prodigal colleague (one smirking), and several offered disparaging comments off the record.
The Senate being a gentleman’s club, senators who did speak on the record about Mr. Lieberman tended to tread lightly. “There are those of us who are friendly with him and those of us who are not,” said Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who did not place himself in either camp.
Other prominent Democrats suspect that Mr. Lieberman is acting, in part, out of spite against a party whose voters have rejected him. “My own sense is that he was just bitterly disappointed by doing so poorly in 2004,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, referring to Mr. Lieberman’s early flameout as a presidential candidate.
In his office, Mr. Lieberman had practiced answers and nondenial denials for the litany of questions he has received: whether he would be Mr. McCain’s running mate (“I’m not really interested, and I don’t expect to be asked”), whether he would take a cabinet post in a McCain administration (he is interested only in representing Connecticut in the Senate) and whether he is concerned that he is getting some of his lowest poll numbers in his home state in years (no).
But the question that seemed to stump him was whether he would speak at the Republican convention. His face took on a slightly pained expression. If he does speak, “I would not go to speak to attack Barack Obama,” he said. “I would go to say why I’m supporting John McCain.”
He would not, in other words, give a speech in the recent tradition of Zell Miller, the former Democratic senator from Georgia who endorsed President Bush in 2004 and derided John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, in a scathing keynote address at the Republican convention.
What is clear is that Mr. Lieberman will not be attending the Democratic convention for the first time since he started going in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was nominated in New York. He went that year as a delegate for Representative Morris K. Udall of Arizona, one of Mr. McCain’s political heroes. It was a lonely foray, he said, but he enjoyed it. He almost sounded wistful for a different time and a different party.
“I’ll miss it,” he said of not attending the Democratic convention, in Denver. “I feel badly about this turn of events.”