How – and When – Can Democrats Get Even With Joe Lieberman?

How - and When - Can Democrats Get Even With Joe Lieberman?When he nearly sabotaged health care reform last month – and succeeded in significantly watering down the Senate’s bill – Joe Lieberman re-established himself as the tormenter-in-chief of progressive Democrats.

Which raises a simple question: How – and when – can they get even? The answer is more elusive than you might think.

The most immediate route would be to convince Democratic leaders in the Senate to strip Lieberman of his Homeland Security committee chairmanship. But that’s a nonstarter.

The main reason is that Lieberman – despite wasting few opportunities to poke a stick in the left’s eyes – has made sure to make himself just valuable enough to Majority Leader Harry Reid within the insular world of the Senate. He routinely votes with Democrats on procedural matters and on legislation that doesn’t attract the same type of attention as health care has.

His health care gamesmanship is a perfect example. Lieberman had plenty of fun sticking it to the left (and grabbing the spotlight for himself – it can be hard to tell which is more important to him) and succeeded in stripping the bill of a public option (and the Medicare buy-in proposed as an alternative). But then, just as Republicans were starting to believe he’d actually join them in killing reform altogether, he broke their hearts, returned to the Democratic fold, and helped ensure the passage of a diminished bill.

Had he stuck with the G.O.P. filibuster, immediate retribution from Reid would have been a realistic prospect. Instead, Lieberman can claim that he’s just as loyal – or no more disloyal – than Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu or Blanche Lincoln, and there’s no serious movement to punish them.

So Lieberman’s chairmanship – which, don’t forget, he secured with the White House’s help after trashing Obama on the 2008 campaign trail -is safe through the 2010 elections.

Theoretically, Democrats might take it away when the new Congress convenes in January 2011. If, as now seems likely, the party’s Senate majority is reduced by several seats, he won’t have the clout he enjoys now (as the filibuster-killing 60th vote) or that he had in 2007 and 2008 (when he was the 51st vote). But don’t hold your breath: Time and again, national Democratic leaders have shrugged their shoulders and offered Lieberman one more chance.

Payback for progressives, then, will probably have to wait for 2012, when Lieberman’s fourth term is due to expire. It’s a long way off, obviously, but it looks like taking him out then will either be very easy or very difficult – and the key will be the decision of a man not many people outside Connecticut have heard of: Richard Blumenthal, the state’s attorney general.

First elected in 1990, Blumenthal is more popular in his state than just about any other statewide elected official in the country – a 78 percent approval rating in the most recent poll. He’s resisted numerous opportunities to run for higher office in the past, but Connecticut Democrats are convinced that the 63-year-old will finally make his move in the next few years.

Until recently, it seemed a no-brainer that his move would be to challenge Lieberman in ’12, mainly because the other two races on the horizon didn’t seem inviting. It was assumed that Republican Governor Jodi Rell, whose popularity rivaled Blumenthal’s for much of this decade, would seek another term in ’10. And Blumenthal is too much of a party man to even think about taking on the embattled Chris Dodd in a Democratic Senate primary next year. So that left Lieberman, who wouldn’t stand a chance against Blumenthal in a Democratic primary or in the fall as an independent. (A poll this year showed Blumenthal crushing Lieberman by a two-to-one margin a general election match-up.)

But the calculus has changed in the last few months. First, Rell, faced with ebbing poll numbers, unexpectedly announced that she wouldn’t seek re-election – meaning that, all of a sudden, the governorship is the Democrats’ for the taking. And the party’s field (now headlined by Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz and Ned Lamont) is hardly that imposing. Connecticut Democrats who previously dismissed his interest in the race now say Blumenthal is seriously considering jumping in.

Then there’s Dodd’s situation, which can best be described as grim. Privately, Democrats doubt he can survive next fall – despite ramping up his campaign operation this year, he still trails his most likely G.O.P. foe, former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, badly – and wonder if he’ll stick around for the whole race. To national Democrats in particular, Blumenthal is regarded as the perfect insurance policy. If Dodd still looks hopeless in the spring, the thinking goes, they can persuade him to step aside and switch the unbeatable Blumenthal into the race.

If either of those scenarios plays out – a Blumenthal gubernatorial or Senate run in ’10 – Democrats would be denied their best weapon for knocking off Lieberman in ’12.

At that point, Lieberman might have a viable shot of winning another term. There is no other Democrat in the state whose popularity is anywhere near as wide or deep as Blumenthal’s. Plus, Lieberman’s ratings – at least as of last month – have actually been on the rise in Connecticut. After bottoming out after the 2008 campaign (when he notched a career low 38-54 percent job approval rating in December ’08), he now enjoys a 49-44 approval rating. Those numbers would make him vulnerable in ’12 – but victory wouldn’t be out of the question, either.

Whether he can sustain those numbers for the next few years is, of course, an open question. And, obviously, any Lieberman ’12 victory scenario would depend on him forming an alliance with Connecticut Republicans, like he did in 2006. It seems likely he could, but it’s too early to tell. The national climate – Barack Obama will be seeking re-election in ’12 – is another variable.

Still, the best advice for progressives who want Lieberman out is simple: Pray that Richard Blumenthal stays on the sidelines in 2010.

Steve Kornacki has written about politics for the New York Observer and Roll Call, and his work has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Journal and other print and on-li more


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