Ned Lamont, For One, Is Not Surprised

Back in 2006, some of the biggest names in Democratic politics, including an up-and-coming Illinois senator named Barack Obama, argued that Joe Lieberman-and not his more progressive Democratic challenger, Ned Lamont-should represent Connecticut in the Senate.

On Tuesday, Lieberman, who won that election as an independent but who (thanks again to Obama) still caucuses with Senate Democrats, announced that he is prepared to join a Republican filibuster of the most significant piece of social legislation that Democrats have moved through Congress in decades–a health care reform bill with a public option.

So is this an I-told-you-so moment for Lamont, who won that primary but lost the ’06 general election to Lieberman by ten points?

“I wouldn’t think that way,” the 55-year-old businessman said in an interview late Tuesday afternoon. “But I’m getting a lot of emails from a lot of old friends–and some new friends.” 

Lieberman’s apparent defection, if it holds, could kill the public option that progressives cherish. Without his support, Democrats would need help from at least one Republican in order to secure the 60 votes needed to kill a filibuster – and there isn’t a single Republican in the Senate (or the House, for that matter) who has expressed any support for a public option.

For the record, a Senator Lamont would be squarely behind a public insurance plan. “I think (Majority Leader) Harry Reid has created a reasonable compromise,” he said. “If a state wants to opt out, that state can opt out. I would hope that Connecticut opts in.”

To national observers, the Lieberman-Lamont race was about one issue only: Iraq. But, especially in the Democratic nomination phase of their battle, health care featured prominently as well.

“We had a very good debate on health care,” Lamont recalled. “It came up at town meeting after town meeting, all across the state.”

“[Lieberman] would say that he was strongly for universal health care and that it was an important issue to him,” he said. “And I would suggest that if it was so important, then why was it taking so long? Now it’s going to take longer.”

There is a “cyclicality” to the health care debate, Lamont said, noting that this is the first time since Bill Clinton’s 1994 effort failed that meaningful reform actually has a chance of clearing Congress and being signed into law.

“I’m just disappointed,” he said. “We’ve got a limited period of time. Does [Lieberman] have some ideas? Then put ‘em on the table and let’s get this done. The cost of doing nothing is too much. We can’t afford another 15 years like the last 15 years.”

He said he hopes that Connecticut voters will now look back at the ’06 Senate race and ask, “What happened, senator?”

I asked Lamont if he thinks that Obama, who intervened last November to keep Senate Democrats from stripping Lieberman of his committee chairmanship, was guilty of trusting Connecticut’s junior senator too much.

“I would really hope that Senator Lieberman would have returned that courtesy by  talking to the president’s team before walking out on this filibuster plank,” he replied.

Lieberman’s seat will be up in 2012. His polls numbers have improved a little this year, but they’re still very shaky, a 48-45 percent approval rating among all voters in the state. But among Democrats, they’re poisonous. Does Lieberman’s latest move mean he’s abandoning any thought of running as a Democrat again in ’12?

“He got re-elected in ’06 with overwhelming Republican support,” Lamont said. “So I guess he’s just taking care of his base.”