Let the Liebermania begin. Within hours of Senator Joe Lieberman’s Wednesday announcement that he will not seek re-election in 2012, Conn. Democrats are climbing over one another to fill his seat. Meanwhile, the punditocracy has raced to the throw Capitol Hill’s most famous turncoat under the bus. Lieberman will bow out in the wake of career-low approval ratings earned by a year of Obamacare stonewalling. His chances of winning in 2012 were bad, and of securing the Democratic nomination, even worse. He steps down at the right time, for his image and his state.

But both of these races — to replace and to condemn — are premature and inappropriate. Throughout over 40 years of public service, Lieberman has worked, fought and spoken tirelessly for his beliefs, never afraid to sacrifice popularity. He began his public life in the fight against segregation, and ends it a hero in the fight against military homophobia, having led the overturn of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. While this newspaper cannot agree with his 2008 endorsement of the disastrous McCain/Palin ticket, we respect his consistent advocacy for progressive policy. Few politicians can claim a more impressive track record in the areas of gun control, pro-choice legislation, gay rights, and environmental protection. At his best, he represented the peak of purple politics, synthesizing the most clearheaded policy of both parties; at his worst, he basked in the contrarian limelight. He will undoubtedly be remembered as a divisive figure; yet he was one of the famous bipartisan Gang of 14 that forged a compromise on judicial filibuster in 2005.

Lieberman remains a unique creature in the American public sphere: a fiercely independent spirit. He has not deflected criticism with the squirming, Palin-esque tendency to play the victim. When his party split with him for his views on Iraq, he ran as an Independent, and won.

Lieberman’s announcement should not serve as yet another opportunity to score partisan points, but rather, to reflect critically on the legacy of a singularly commanding and confounding statesman. We hope that, without reelection pressures, he will spend his final two years as a consensus building force in the senate: an elder statesman of the highest caliber.

Lieberman’s exit will open the door for a candidate more in touch with the views of his or her constituency. Unfortunately, the current Connecticut melee to fill the slot is discouraging. In particular, we are not enthused by the prospect of Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz ’83 waiting in the wings. Revealing her candidacy one day before Lieberman’s announcement, Bysiewicz displayed more of the opportunism that has lately characterized her career. Her decision to drop out of the governor’s race to run for Attorney General — a position for which she was legally unqualified — does not inspire confidence. Later in the same race, Bysiewicz preemptively called the governor’s race — badly mismanaged by her office — for the Democrat Dannel Malloy. And last year, Bysiewicz misused public databases for private political gain.

To replace Lieberman, a quintessentially independent idealist, with such a cynical partisan would be a profound disappointment. While Connecticut hopes for a senator with more amicable views than Lieberman’s, it does not want or need a party-player, especially one more interested in her own advancement than public service. The loss of one of the Senate’s greats places a profound responsibility on Connecticut’s Democrats. We hope they will answer it with the same spirit — if not recent policies — that the career of Joe Lieberman represents.