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Lieberman's Retirement

Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of the most unusual figures in American political history, made it official today, announcing he would not run for a fifth term in 2012. Most observers noted accurately that he did not have any feasible path to victory, with both Democrats and Republicans lining up to challenge him (his independent win in 2006 was heavily attributable to a virtually non-existent Republican candidacy).

It was an appropriate if bitter end to Lieberman's electoral career. I'll have more to say about this at a later date, but Lieberman's trajectory since his appearance on the Democratic ticket in 2000 has been in the steady direction of representing traditions he's misinterpreted, and constituencies that no longer exist. It was fitting that when he crossed every line of political propriety and endorsed the Republican ticket in 2008, he embraced his friend John McCain precisely when McCain was reinventing his own political identity at the behest of the conservative movement, which in turn vetoed Lieberman as a possible running-mate.

My personal interaction with Lieberman was well back in the day, when he was an exceptionally sunny personality who was perhaps the Senate's most reliable advocate of the Clintonian tendency in Democratic politics. I never saw up-close the reportedly bitter man who never got over his failed presidential campaign in 2004 and his lost primary challenge in 2006, blaming Democrats for turning their backs on him and on the "JFK tradition" in the party (which he cited once again in his retirement announcement). He never seemed to reflect much on the fact that others had legitimate claims to represent that tradition, making his own isolation largely self-imposed.

In any event, those Democrats who remember his earlier days in politics are rightly pleased that he managed one fine moment before announcing his retirement. In championing repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he did stand for the vindication of both justice and the popular will against the depredations of partisan politics. That, along with his mistakes, will be part of his complicated legacy.