Take It From Someone Who Knows Lieberman: He’s Gone for Good

The big question in Washington right now is about how serious Joe Lieberman actually is about joining a Republican filibuster of the health care bill with a public option that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is now pushing.

Connecticut’s junior senator said on Tuesday that he’ll probably vote to allow the bill to come to the floor for debate (opposing a G.O.P. filibuster at that point), but that “if the bill remains what it is now,” he would vote to filibuster it before final passage.

So it’s possible that he’s just playing for leverage and that he’ll be persuaded to return to the Democratic fold in the end, the scenario that Senate Democrats seemed on Tuesday to be banking on. And it’s also possible that he isn’t bluffing-and that John McCain’s favorite surrogate really is willing to provide the vote that would effectively kill a public option.

Either way, his latest headline-grabbing posture offered further confirmation to disgusted Democrats in his home state that even though Lieberman (thanks to Barack Obama’s intervention last November) now caucuses with Senate Democrats, he is writing the party off as he considers his own future.

“I do believe that if he runs for re-election in Connecticut (in 2012), it will be as a Republican,” Bill Curry, a veteran of Connecticut Democratic politics who once served with Lieberman in the state Senate, told the Observer on Tuesday.

“He never loses the capacity to shock,” said Curry, a two-time gubernatorial candidate. “It is just so contemptuous of the president, who let him back into the caucus and the chairmanship.”

This is not necessarily where things had to end up for Lieberman after last year’s presidential race, when his pro-McCain activism left him with the worst poll numbers of his career in Connecticut – a 38 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac survey last December.

With Obama intervening to save his spot in the Democratic caucus (and his Homeland Security gavel), Lieberman actually seemed to have an opportunity – over a period of months, if not years – to ease his way back into the good graces of Democrats by becoming a cooperative partner with the new president.

This would have allowed him to re-establish his Democratic bona fides, renew relationships with Democratic senators, and earn the appreciation of the Democratic White House – which would then have been be in position to return the favor with help, both public and private, in ’12.

Obviously, though, this isn’t the path Lieberman is following. 

“He is not blind to what an extraordinary knife this is to the Democratic Party,” Curry said. “It could be that he’s angling to try to get some sort of deal. Or it could be an indication of what he’s thinking for 2012.”

Curry’s suspicion that Lieberman will end up running as Republican in ’12 – if he doesn’t opt for political retirement instead – is well-grounded.

Reclaiming the Democratic nomination is out of the question. The most recent Quinnipiac poll, conducted a month ago, gave Lieberman a miserable 34 percent approval rating among Democrats – a number that will plummet further of he maintains his public option holdout.

More to the point, there are strong indications that Richard Blumenthal, the state’s popular attorney general, has set his sights on a ’12 Senate bid. Blumenthal’s favorable rating hovers near 70 percent in polls, and soars to over 80 percent among Democrats. A February poll found him crushing Lieberman in a potential ’12 general election (with Blumenthal running as a Democrat and Lieberman as an independent) by 28 points. In a Democratic primary, the massacre would be far, far worse.

The 63-year-old Blumenthal, first elected in 1990, has previously passed on numerous chances to run for higher office. But Democrats expect his answer will be different this time. And even if it isn’t, Lieberman won’t be their second–or third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth–choice.

Running as an independent again would be tricky for Lieberman, and would require him to forge the kind of informal partnership with the G.O.P. that he enjoyed in 2006. As soon as he lost that year’s Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, the state’s top Republicans quickly endorsed Lieberman’s independent candidacy, ignoring their own little-known candidate, Alan Schlesinger (who finished with less than 10 percent of the vote).

A serious, well-funded Republican nominee in ’12 would cripple any independent effort by Lieberman.

That leaves the G.O.P. option. And it’s not hard to imagine Connecticut’s Republican Party, which is far more moderate on cultural issues than most of its counterparts across the country, embracing him as their nominee. The state G.O.P. has a very thin bench and hasn’t won a Senate election since 1982 (and then only with the very liberal Lowell Weicker). In many ways, Lieberman would be doing them a favor by coming on board.

And is there a better way to curry favor with Republicans than to position yourself as the biggest obstacle standing in the way of ObamaCare?

“Joe is such an extraordinarily opportunistic thinker,” Curry said on Tuesday, “that what you immediately ask yourself isn’t what he might be trying to achieve on health care, but what he’s thinking about his re-election.”

  Take It From Someone Who Knows Lieberman: He’s Gone for Good