Joe Lieberman 'out of tune' with Connecticut, but few complain

Sen. Joe Lieberman is refusing to vote for a healthcare public option – even though the Connecticut Legislature passed comprehensive healthcare reform this year. But poll data suggest the Nutmeg State won't abandon Lieberman.

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) walks through the US Capitol subway after meetings about the health care reform bill that is currently being debated in the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday.

There is an irony in Sen. Joseph Lieberman's stalwart opposition to any form of a healthcare public option: The state he represents, Connecticut, approved a statewide public health insurance system with a public option this year.

Anger at Senator Lieberman's stance in some quarters of the state is such that state Rep. Rosa DeLauro declared that he “ought to be recalled.”

In fact, Connecticut has no mechanism for recalling senators – and would be unlikely to recall Lieberman even if it did, says Douglas Schwartz, a pollster who has conducted surveys in Connecticut about Lieberman. Residents know that he “has already moved toward the right on a number of high profile issues," Dr. Schwartz says.

But there is little question that Lieberman is out of step with this state. Though Connecticut is not a liberal bastion like Washington, D.C., or Hawaii, it is a blue state that trends Democratic.

“I would expect that in 2012, a Democratic senatorial candidate running against Lieberman is going to make this a primary aspect of his or her campaign, and Democratic voters are going to be receptive to that sort of criticism," says Doug Foyle, a political scientist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., who puts the left-right split in Connecticut at 55 percent to 45 percent.

Lieberman's stand

In recent days, Lieberman has said he would refuse to vote for a government run healthcare public option or for a Medicare buy-in program that would act like a public option. Though Lieberman is an independent, he is a part of the Democratic caucus, and the Democrats need his vote – or the vote of one Republican – to avoid a filibuster on healthcare reform.The result has been the apparent end of the public option.

Connecticut, however, has displayed strong support for universal healthcare. The Legislature passed a bill calling for the creation of a statewide public health insurance system this year. When Republican Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill, the Connecticut House and Senate had enough votes to override the veto. The plan, called SustiNet, includes a public option.

"People happy with their private health insurance plans are free to keep them," wrote Juan Figueroa, president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, in the Hartford Courant in July, using words reminiscent of the national debate. "But the new public option will offer a more affordable choice to many people, such as those with preexisting conditions, who are currently locked out of the private market."

No surprises

Yet polling data suggest that Connecticut voters are unlikely to be too angry with Lieberman.

After Lieberman first announced his opposition to the pubic option this fall, a study by Quinnipiac University Poll found that Connecticut voters approved of how Lieberman was handling his job, 49 to 44 percent. More specifically, 64 percent said that even if Lieberman was involved in a filibuster of the Democratic healthcare plan, he ought to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“The public option is popular in Connecticut, but people didn’t care enough about it to affect their opinion of Lieberman,” says Schwartz, director of Quinnipiac University Poll.

In short, the people of Connecticut are already well acquainted with Lieberman's ways. “I wouldn’t expect his numbers to move that much,” says Professor Foyle. “His opposition to [the public option] isn’t telling anyone anything new about Joe Lieberman."

Mr. Figueroa of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut disagrees. “People are really, really outraged that he is playing the worst kind of politics,” said Figueroa, who worked as an assistant district attorney when Lieberman’s was attorney general of Connecticut. “It is one more indication of how Lieberman is so out of tune with the people in this state.”

Or, perhaps, with Democrats. In an interview with CNN Tuesday, Lieberman raised new questions about his political future if he chooses to run in 2012.

“It’s unlikely that I would run as a Republican, but I wouldn’t foreclose any possibility,” he said.

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