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Joe Lieberman Weighs the Trump Risk

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gorengan

Joe Lieberman wants to make one thing clear. “The last thing I’d ever want to be part of,” the former Connecticut senator and onetime vice-presidential nominee told me by phone last week, “is bringing Donald Trump back to the Oval Office.”

Democrats have their doubts. Lieberman and his former party have been warring for years, ever since he won a fourth Senate term, in 2006, as an independent after Connecticut Democrats dumped him in a primary. Suddenly liberated, Lieberman endorsed the Republican John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008 and proceeded to tank the Democrats’ dreams of enacting a public health-insurance program through the Affordable Care Act.

He’s now a co-chair of No Labels, the centrist group that, to the growing alarm of Democrats, is preparing to field a third-party presidential ticket in 2024. The organization’s leaders say they’re trying to save voters from a binary rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden that most Americans have told pollsters they don’t want. But Democrats and more than a few Republicans fear that such a plan might ensure exactly what Lieberman insists he would hate to see: Trump’s return to the White House. Both No Labels’ own polling and independent surveys have shown that a “moderate, independent” candidate could capture as much as 20 percent of the popular vote and would pull more of that support from Biden than from Trump. If the 2024 election is as close as 2020’s—and pretty much every political prognosticator believes it will be—that could be decisive.

No Labels has already lost one of its co-founders, William Galston, over its push for a third-party ticket; Galston resigned in protest this spring over the possibility that the bid could tip the election to Trump. Democratic members of the No Labels–backed Problem Solvers Caucus in the House have disavowed the effort for the same reason. The moderate Democratic group Third Way is adamantly opposed to the idea, and a new bipartisan group is forming to stop it.

For now, Lieberman is undeterred. “I think people in both parties, particularly the Democrats, are greatly overreacting,” Lieberman told me. “They really would do better to try to build up support for their own ticket and adopt a platform that’s more to the center.”

Founded by the Democratic fundraiser Nancy Jacobson, No Labels launched in 2010 with an initial focus on promoting centrist policies and breaking partisan gridlock in Congress during the Obama presidency. It formed the Problem Solvers Caucus in 2017 and has touted some of the major bipartisan bills that have passed with Biden’s support, including the 2021 infrastructure law. It is now putting significant money behind an idea—a so-called unity ticket featuring one Democrat and one Republican—that has come up repeatedly over the past two decades but has never actually materialized. Leaders of No Labels have said they won’t decide whether to nominate a ticket until the spring, when they would assess the major-party nominees and see what polling shows about the effect a third-party bid might have. So far they’ve refused to discuss who their actual candidates might be.

Citing a large poll the group commissioned in December, No Labels has argued that a third-party ticket could win enough states—including some that are deeply red and deeply blue—to capture the Electoral College. Lieberman acknowledged that that remains a tall order. He said No Labels wanted a potential unity ticket to play “a constructive role” even if it didn’t win, drawing both parties back toward the ideological middle. They are hoping, for example, that one of the two parties will embrace the “Common Sense” policy agenda that was released yesterday. It’s not clear, however, that this would make Biden or Trump any more palatable to voters.

The group’s lodestar was the late Ross Perot, who captured 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and was the last third-party candidate to draw significant popular support. Lieberman credits Perot’s bid for prompting President Bill Clinton to embrace policies that led to a balanced federal budget; many Republicans believe the Texas businessman cost George HW Bush a second term. More recent third-party candidates such as Jill Stein in 2016 have garnered much less support but played more obvious spoiler roles, delivering Republican presidential victories. And Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, is well aware of the impact that Ralph Nader had in that election, when he took crucial votes away from the Democratic ticket in Florida.

“When I look at the next year’s data, I’m going to be very cautious about interpreting it,” Lieberman said. “If it appears that, notwithstanding our goals, we may create a real risk of inadvertently helping to relect Donald Trump, I will be strongly opposed to running a third-party ticket. And I think I’m reflecting a majority of people in No Labels, including the leadership.”

For all of Lieberman’s talk about caution, however, the group is aggressively laying the groundwork for what it calls a national “insurance policy” against a Biden-Trump rematch. No Labels is pursuing a $70 million effort to secure ballot access in every state and has already made progress in several important battlegrounds. Today, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman will headline the formal launch of the group’s “Common Sense” agenda in New Hampshire. Manchin has not ruled out running for president on a No Labels ticket, although he insisted to CNN that his high-profile visit to the early-primary state was no indication that he’s warming to the idea.

Lieberman is clear about his distaste for Trump, but he’s hazier on the question of why—or even whether—Biden has fallen short. He’s said repeatedly that if the choice came down to Biden or Trump, he’d vote for the Democrat, and he speaks affectionately of a man he first met nearly 40 years ago and with whom he served for 20 years in the Senate. Yet he’s still hunting for a better option. I asked him whether he supported a third-party ticket because Biden had done a bad job or because voters thought he’d done a bad job. “I think it’s both,” Lieberman revised. “He’s an honorable person, but he’s been pulled off his normal track too often” by pressure from the left. That’s a frequent talking point from Republicans and a complaint Manchin has made from time to time.

The perception that Biden has veered too far to the left, though, is not what has driven his low approval ratings. Indeed, in many ways Biden is the kind of president for whom moderates like Lieberman have long been clamoring. Yes, he signed two major bills that passed along purely party-line votes (the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act a year later), but he has repeatedly prioritized negotiating with Republicans, most recently over the debt ceiling. Lieberman credited Biden for his bipartisan infrastructure law and the budget deal he struck with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy this spring. “He’s done some significant things,” Lieberman said, also praising the president’s initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic. When I asked him what specifically Biden had veered too far left on, he initially declined to list any issues. Then he pointed to No Labels’ policy plan, noting that it included “commonsense” proposals on guns and immigration.

Although he’s been out of office for more than a decade, Lieberman, at 81, is less than a year older than Biden. He said he believed the president remained up to the job, both physically and cognitively, and he was reluctant to call on him to stand down. But Lieberman gently suggested that might have been the better course. “I’m struck by how intent he is on running again,” he said with a chuckle. “It would have been easier for him not to run, and he could retire with a real sense of pride and just an absolutely productive career in public service.”

Lieberman’s response subtly pointed to No Labels’ hope that, come springtime, their decision would be an easy one. Perhaps Biden will change his mind and withdraw, or Trump’s legal woes will finally persuade Republican voters to look elsewhere. At the moment, neither of those scenarios seems likely.

Lieberman and his allies might decide that nominating a third-party ticket won’t help relect Trump, but that’s not something they can know for sure. I asked Lieberman: If he was so intent on keeping Trump out of office, wasn’t that too big a risk to take? He didn’t have a clear answer. “Yeah,” he replied. “I mean, we’ll see.”