As na­tional mood sours, Dems head for the ex­its

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

While Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid scram­bles to as­sem­ble 60 Demo­cratic votes for health care leg­is­la­tion that, ac­cord­ing to the real­clear­pol­i­ av­er­age of re­cent polls, is op­posed by a 53 per­cent to 38 per­cent mar­gin, sev­eral Demo­cratic mem­bers of the House are scram­bling for the ex­its on what is start­ing to look like a sink­ing ship.

You may have no­ticed that I avoided us­ing the cliche “rats leav­ing the sink­ing ship,” be­cause the four Demo­cratic House mem­bers who over the last three weeks an­nounced their de­ci­sions to re­tire rather than run for re-elec­tion can­not fairly be char­ac­ter­ized as rats.

To the con­trary, Den­nis Moore (Kansas 3), John Tan­ner (Ten­nessee 8), Brian Baird (Wash­ing­ton 3) and Bart Gor­don (Ten­nessee 6) are com­pe­tent House mem­bers who be­tween them have won elec­tion to Congress 36 times. Mr. Gor­don is chair­man of the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee; Mr. Tan­ner was of­fered an ap­point­ment to suc­ceed Al Gore in the Se­nate in 1992; Mr. Baird was lead spon­sor of mea­sures to en­sure the con­ti­nu­ity of Congress in time of na­tional dis­as­ter. All have claims to sig­nif­i­cant leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments.

And to po­lit­i­cal suc­cess in mar­ginal Demo­cratic ter­ri­tory. Messrs. Gor­don and Tan­ner rep­re­sent dis­tricts that voted heav­ily for John McCain in 2008; Moore’s usu­ally Repub­li­can district gave Barack Obama a small ma­jor­ity; Mr. Baird’s sub­ur­ban district has voted at just about the na­tional av­er­age in the last three pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

All four cited plau­si­ble per­sonal rea­sons for call­ing it quits, and none can be un­aware that there is a ro­bust job mar­ket in Wash­ing­ton for for­mer Demo­cratic con­gress­men with good po­lit­i­cal skills. Mem­bers of Congress make $174,000 a year; heads of trade as­so­ci­a­tions make up­ward of $741,000 and don’t have to re­turn to home dis­tricts on week­ends.

All four of th­ese re­tir­ing mem­bers faced the prospect of tougher op­po­si­tion in 2010 than they have en­coun­tered in years. Messrs. Tan­ner and Gor­don are from what I call the Jack­so­nian belt, the area set­tled by Scots-Ir­ish south­west from West Vir­ginia to Texas, where Barack Obama ran poorly in both pri­maries and the gen­eral elec­tion last year.

Polls in nearby Jack­so­nian Arkansas have shown Demo­cratic in­cum­bents run­ning even with or be­hind un­known Repub­li­can chal­lengers.

Messrs. Moore and Baird are from sub­ur­ban dis­tricts where their views on cul­tural is­sues have been a po­lit­i­cal as­set. But in the gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions last month in Vir­ginia and New Jer­sey, sub­ur­ban vot­ers brushed aside cul­tural is­sues and voted for Repub­li­cans who ran against higher taxes and big gov­ern­ment. That sug­gests that Democrats in sub­ur­ban House dis­tricts can’t ex­pect to match Mr. Obama’s 2008 show­ings next year.

Th­ese four Democrats are not the only House mem­bers who aren’t run­ning for re-elec­tion, but all of the 12 Republi- can re­tirees and all but one of the seven other Demo­cratic re­tirees are leav­ing the House to run for statewide of­fice.

The ques­tion now is whether more Democrats of this ilk will choose to re­tire — some­thing House Demo­cratic leaders have been work­ing to pre­vent.

They’re very much aware that Repub­li­cans in 1994 won some 21 open seats in which Demo­cratic in­cum­bents did not seek re-elec­tion, nearly half the 52 seats the Repub­li­cans gained when they won con­trol of the House that year.

Pub­lic opin­ion ex­presses it­self in the leg­isla­tive process in var­i­ous ways. Democrats’ cur­rent large ma­jor­ity in the House, which has en­abled them to pass un­pop­u­lar ca­pand-trade and health care leg­is­la­tion, is largely the prod­uct of pub­lic dis­con­tent with Ge­orge W. Bush’s per­ceived non­fea­sance on Ka­t­rina in 2005 and per­ceived malfea­sance in Iraq in 2005 and later.

Th­ese four de­ci­sions to re­tire, and sim­i­lar de­ci­sions by other Democrats that may come, seem (for all dis­claimers of per­sonal rea­sons) to be the prod­uct of pub­lic dis­con­tent with the poli­cies of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and con­gres­sional Demo­cratic leaders in 2009. Such dis­con­tent, per­cep­ti­ble only in the Jack­so­nian belt last year, has now clearly spread to the sub­urbs of ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas.

The odds are still against Repub­li­cans pick­ing up the 41 seats they need for a House ma­jor­ity.

But it’s in­ter­est­ing that when Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat Michael Ca­puano, fresh from a sec­ond-place fin­ish in the pri­mary for Ed­ward Kennedy’s Se­nate seat, was asked to tell the Demo­cratic cau­cus what he had learned on the cam­paign trail, he replied in two words: “You’re screwed.” How many of those lis­ten­ing de­cided that it would be a good idea to spend more time with the fam­ily af­ter 2010?

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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