A couple weeks ago, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the self-described "Independent Democrat" from Connecticut, received a phone call from a close friend and frequent traveling companion, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain wanted to know if Lieberman would endorse his presidential bid.
It may seem a long journey, emotionally and politically, from being the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, to endorsing a conservative Republican for president, less than eight years later — an endorsement scheduled for Monday morning in Hillsborough, N.H.
That journey might look even more odd, considering Lieberman's continued liberalism on many issues. In 2006, he garnered a 75 percent voting record from both the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and the ACLU, and a 100 percent rating from the labor union American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
But Lieberman's left-leaning views on domestic issues aside, after talking with his family and a couple of aides, he decided the journey to McCain-land was one he was willing to make.
The two were good friends, had worked together on global warming and the 9/11 Commission, and, perhaps most important, the need to keep fighting the war in Iraq. The two not only occasionally traveled to that country together — most recently around Thanksgiving — they had recently co-authored an op-ed, published in the New Hampshire Union Leader, calling any efforts by the Democratic-controlled Congress to cut off funding for the war, "inexcusable."
A top Lieberman aide says the senator disagrees with McCain on many domestic matters, including abortion and affirmative action, but "on the key issue, the central issue of being commander in chief, and leading the war against Islamic extremists, they see eye to eye." Additionally, the aide says, Lieberman sees McCain as having "the unique ability to bring Democrats and Republicans together."
Lieberman does not see this endorsement as a departure. "From his viewpoint, he hasn't changed as much as his party has," says the aide, saying the senator sees himself in the muscular foreign policy school of Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, citing Lieberman's support for the first Gulf War in 1991, intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, his call for regime change with the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, and his vote to authorize use of force against Iraq in 2002.
"He sees John McCain as more representative of the Joe Lieberman-Harry Truman-John F. Kennedy national security perspective, than any Democratic candidate is," says the aide.
And that is key. "He has a fundamental difference on national security policy with the field" of Democratic presidential candidates. "Many of those Democrats who supported authorization to go to war, subsequently endorsed a deadline for withdrawal, which he opposes, which he thinks would be a disaster."
Last month, at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Lieberman eviscerated Democrats on foreign policy. "For many Democrats, the guiding conviction in foreign policy isn't pacifism or isolationism — it is distrust and disdain of Republicans, in general, and President Bush, in particular," he said.
"In this regard, the Democratic foreign policy worldview has become defined by the same reflexive, blind opposition to the president that defined Republicans in the 1990s — even when it means repudiating the very principles and policies that Democrats, as a party, have stood for, at our best and strongest."
Lieberman recalled how he and Al Gore, in 2000, had proposed a far more interventionist foreign policy than had then-Gov. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But 9/11 changed the Republicans' views.
"The Bush administration's post-9/11 ideological conversion confronted Democrats with an awkward choice. Should we welcome the president's foreign policy flip-flop? Or should Democrats match it with a flip-flop of our own?" Lieberman said.
"I felt strongly that Democrats should embrace the basic framework that the president articulated for the War on Terror as our own — because it was our own. It was our legacy ... But that was not the choice most Democrats made. Instead, they flip-flopped."
The point: they changed, not him. "He's the same Joe Lieberman he was in 1991," says the aide.
Lieberman has, of course, changed in at least one major respect: he is no longer a Democrat.
Last summer, running against businessman Ned Lamont, Lieberman lost his party's nomination to run for re-election for his own Senate seat, largely because of his ardent support for the war in Iraq.
Ignoring calls from Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean to drop out of the race, Lieberman secured a place for himself on the ballot for the general election as an independent, a member of the "Connecticut for Lieberman" Party.
His primary loss to Lamont, 52 percent to 48 percent, was followed by a 10-point victory in the general election over Lamont, 50 percent to 40 percent, with a Republican challenger garnering the remaining 10 percent.
When he returned to Washington, D.C., he declared himself an "Independent Democrat" and — in a deal that enabled him to become chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Relations Committee — handed the Democrats a narrow majority control of the Senate.
"This would be somewhat surprising, or a bigger deal, pre-Lamont, but not completely unexpected," says a source close to Lieberman. "It's a reflection on two things — the deep, close personal bond between him and McCain transcends any partisan concerns. And his belief, post-9/11, in terms of the priority calculus, of who's going to be the best commander in chief, and prosecute the war on terror."
Post-Lamont, the source close to Lieberman says, the decision to endorse McCain is not surprising at all. "Post-Lamont Lieberman's been liberated from partisan concerns, and has become a total free agent. ... He's going to evaluate his decision, based on who he thinks is best to lead the country, regardless of party affiliation."
Earlier this year, in fact, Lieberman endorsed for re-election in 2008, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of a handful of Republicans who campaigned for him in 2006 after he became an independent.
McCain was not one of them, telling ABC News' "This Week," "I don't think it's appropriate for me to endorse or not endorse Joe Lieberman, because he is running as an independent Democrat, but that's up to the people of Connecticut. I will continue to support the Republican nominee."
McCain refrained from campaigning for the Republican, however, explaining to NBC that "Joe Lieberman is a close friend of mine, and I would not campaign against him." While continuing to say he supported the GOP nominee, he allowed "I wouldn't be disappointed" if Lieberman won.
Those close to Lieberman insist sour grapes and resentment towards the Democratic party have nothing to do with Lieberman's unusual action.
While four Democratic senators campaigned for Lamont — Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina, and his fellow Nutmeg-stater Chris Dodd — even more, five, campaigned for him. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former President Bill Clinton did not make any appearances in the state on Lamont's behalf; nor did Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., or any members of the Senate Democratic leadership.
"The idea that he would throw away his endorsement and reputation out of resentment, is just antithetical to who Joe Lieberman is," says the source close to Lieberman. "Anyone who would make that assertion just doesn't know him."
Lieberman has played a role in the 2008 campaign before his endorsement of McCain; Obama and Edwards have attempted to use Clinton's support for a Lieberman amendment, declaring certain Iranian forces terrorist — and mentioning their role in the war in Iraq — as her support for a potential U.S. war against Iran.
In his speech last month, Lieberman called the controversy a "case study in the distrust and partisan polarization that now poisons our body politic on even the most sensitive issues of national security." The amendment, he said, had "nothing that could be construed as a green light for an attack on Iran.
"There is something profoundly wrong, something that should trouble all of us, when we have elected Democratic officials who seem more worried about how the Bush administration might respond to Iran's murder of our troops, than about the fact that Iran is murdering our troops," Lieberman said.
"There is, likewise, something profoundly wrong when we see candidates who are willing to pander to this politically paranoid, hyper-partisan, sentiment in the Democratic base, even if it sends a message of weakness and division to the Iranian regime."