Few lawmakers have shaped America's modern military more than the departing Sen. Joe Lieberman. From cutting edge issues of military transformation to national missile defense, to creation of the Department of Homeland Security and on to Israel and Iraq, Lieberman often led the way on Capitol Hill, arguing forcefully with colleagues behind closed doors.
Lieberman announced his decision not to run for reelection today, saying he had promised his wife he'd leave when perennial TV show host Regis Philbin retired. "It’s not easy on the spouses, and Hadassah said to me, ‘Joey, how long are you going to stay in the Senate?’ I promise you, when Regis leaves television, I’ll leave the Senate — and here we are,” the senator said at a press conference. Lieberman would have had to run for reelection in 2012 and the former Democrat faced formidable opposition from both his former party and the Republicans in his home state of Connecticut.
I spoke with Fred Downey, Lieberman's longtime military advisor who is now at the Aerospace Industries Association, to get his perspective on how Lieberman's departure would affect the defense debate on Capitol Hill.
"The level of interaction and debate in the Senate in hearings will go down some. He was typically a very moderate, balanced voice on defense issues and had a way of engaging that cut to the heart of issues. Part of that was from being around a while. Now there's a new group and the tendency is to be more personal and parochial," Downey said.
Lieberman brought to the Senate "a strong sense that national security was not discretionary," Downey said, driven in part by the fact that his wife's family included survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau, the Nazi death camps.
In the national security arena he was largely seen as a very fair and balanced voice. "He was always very willing to listen sensibly and he showed the proper deference to administration officials who had real accountability," Downey said, pointing to a key aspect of the relationships between the White House, Pentagon and Congress. Administration officials who bear the burden of ordering the military into battle and intelligence officials into lives in the shadows often resent what they regard as congressional grandstanding on these issues.
To be sure, Lieberman has had his own parochial interests, often defending Sikorsky, Electric Boat and UTC programs -- all companies with substantial presences in his state.
One of Lieberman's key creations -- with Sen. Dan Coats -- was the Quadrennial Defense Review, which he and Coats hoped would help drive improvements in Pentagon strategy and planning. "It's hard to find anyone left with that kind of top-level interest and willingness to deal with real defense policy in Congress," Downey said.
Lieberman also played a key role in forcing through the development of National Missile Defense, a system opposed by many of his fellow Democrats.
"He and Thad Cochran and Dan Inouye were largely the people who pushed National Missile Defense over the top on the floor," Downey noted.
Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, noted today that, "the very existence of the Department of Homeland Security is due in large part to Senator Lieberman. Dating back to the first days after 9/11, he has been an instrumental architect of the very way we work to keep America safe from the evolving threats we face in the 21st century."
While some may now regret the creation of DHS, Lieberman and Rep. Mac Thornberry -- who played a key role on the House side -- were hailed at the time as visionaries willing to tackle the hideously complex task of bringing together such disparate agencies as the Coast Guard and immigration.
The senator also had an important hand in forging the bill that created the director of National Intelligence and the reorganization of the intelligence community.
"Joe created a very strong working relationship with the Republican leaders on the Government Affairs Committee over the years, regardless of who it was. That allowed that committee to get things done," said Downey, who worked for Lieberman at the time. The senator's "moderate tone carried those two bills [creation of DHS and the intel reorganization) through some pretty intense conferences.”