Joe Lieberman's Potential 2012 Dilemma

You’ve probably seen or read about the new poll in Connecticut that gives Joe Lieberman his worst marks ever – a 45-43 approval rating. A second poll released this morning finds that Lieberman’s addition to John McCain’s ticket would actually turns off far more Connecticut voters than it would excite.

The numbers can be partly attributed to Lieberman’s prominent role in the presidential campaign as a McCain surrogate. Elected officials often pay a price in their backyard for venturing onto the national stage. Not surprisingly, Chris Dodd – who spent most of 2007 and the first three days of 2008 waging a hopeless presidential campaign – also scored his worst-ever job approval numbers in the same poll.

But the question of Lieberman’s long-term political future in Connecticut – and whether he has one – is very real. His Senate seat isn’t up until 2012, so in theory there’s plenty of time for him to rebound. But the unique forces that ended up working in his favor in the fall of 2006 will almost certainly be absent in ’12.

Look at it this way: In ’06, Ned Lamont, the man who successfully challenged Lieberman in the Democratic primary only to lose convincingly in November, was both the best and the worst candidate to take on Lieberman – the best because he embraced and energized all of the liberal activists and interest groups that were gunning for Lieberman, thus creating a coalition capable of edging out Lieberman in the primary; the worst because his intimate identification with that coalition made him unpalatable to far too many independent voters in the fall, thus clearing the way for Lieberman to assemble his victorious center-right coalition.

But in 2012, Democrats will not have to worry about ousting Lieberman in a primary. They will be free to nominate a candidate with broader appeal than Lamont. There is much time between now and then, but one Democrat to keep an eye on is Chris Murphy, a sharp, ambitious and well-spoken 34-year-old freshman congressman from the Northwest part of the state. Murphy unseated Nancy Johnson, a long-serving and seemingly popular moderate Republican, in 2006. A candidate with his profile would have been far more likely to defeat Lieberman in the ’06 general election – and will have a much better chance of securing the Democratic nomination in ’12.

Then there’s the question of where Lieberman goes.

In 2006, Republicans officially fielded a candidate – an obscure former state representative named Alan Schlesinger – but for all practical purposes, Lieberman was their man. Every prominent G.O.P. official in the state either endorsed him outright or made his or her preference clear and Schlesinger finished with just 10 percent of the vote.

But the G.O.P. might not be so anxious to stand with Lieberman in ’12. Part of the motivation to back him in ’06 came from the national level: top Republicans wanted to embrace Lieberman as a way of making the Democrats look like an extreme party. Plus, no top-tier (or even middle-tier) Republican in Connecticut ever showed interest in the race. But in ’12, some may see opportunity – like, say, Jodi Rell, the state’s popular (a 65-23 approval rating) Republican governor. Lieberman may not be able to count on the solid Republican base that he had in ’06.

Lieberman, it seems, has three long-term options as he considers his ’12 predicament. One is to stick it out as an independent, lowering his national profile after this year’s presidential campaign and hoping his Connecticut popularity rebounds enough to make another third party run viable. The second is to switch to the Republican Party, an option that may be more attractive if Senate Democrats jettison him from his committee chairmanship after November; Lieberman could then run in ’12 as the G.O.P. nominee, thus enjoying a one-on-one race against the Democrat. His third option is tied to McCain: He could either leave the Senate for an administration job (Defense secretary?) or even attempt to make the jump earlier, if McCain were to offer him his V.P. slot this year.

But without a McCain administration, Lieberman will be stuck with his Senate seat. He’ll be 70 years old in 2012, a 24-year veteran of the Senate. Maybe, given his potentially precarious standing back home, a fourth option will then begin to look attractive: retirement.