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Dick Durbin: Bush Fighter | The Nation

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Dick Durbin: Bush Fighter

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Durbin is not, however, a maverick. Though he has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, he sees himself as very much in the mainstream of his party. But he recognizes something that too many party leaders in both houses have had a hard time wrapping their heads around since the 1994 election handed power to the Republicans: The mainstream of his party is not currently the mainstream of Congress. Democrats must therefore stop thinking of themselves as the natural party of government and start operating as an opposition force--picking the right fights, remaining united in their dissents and establishing a record on the most critical issues of the day that is distinct from that of the White House and the House and Senate majorities. "We have to have our own agenda," says Durbin, who has already begun meeting with Reid and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to shape a clearer Democratic line. Yes, Democrats suffered a serious setback in the 2004 elections--they now hold just forty-four seats in the Senate (Independent Jim Jeffords caucuses with the group to create a 55-45 partisan split). But Durbin does not see his party's diminished position as an excuse for a compromise of ideals; in fact, he says, "we Democrats can't take this sitting down. We have to stand up, look at our own agenda, our own language and figure out how we build this back into a majority party."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Durbin is ready for that fight. The new whip is a man of government, so much so that he once served as the parliamentarian for Democrats in the Illinois legislature. Since arriving in Washington in 1983 as a young congressman representing the district that once sent Abraham Lincoln to the House, Durbin has mastered the protocols of Capitol Hill. But he also knows how to trump the Republicans in the battle of public opinion. Last fall, before the extent of the nationwide flu vaccine shortage was fully revealed to the American people, Senate majority leader Bill Frist sent a letter to senators urging them to get inoculated. Durbin responded with a show of populist fury that would have well served Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who never quite figured out how to capitalize on a public health crisis that had occurred on his opponent's watch. "It simply isn't fair for senators to cut to the front of the line when seniors around the country have been forced to wait for hours to get a flu shot," raged Durbin, who turned down the proffered shot and then dispatched a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson demanding to know "whether or not officials in our government knew that problems were coming and did little or nothing to prevent them."

Durbin learned how to play to win in one of the nation's most savage political settings. Born and raised in southern Illinois by parents who were active trade unionists, he has spent a lifetime in the rough-and-tumble world of Illinois Democratic politics, where generations of idealists were ground up by the Daley family's Chicago machine. But Durbin attached himself early on to two idealists who proved to be tougher than the machine: liberal icon Paul Douglas, and the man who would eventually occupy Douglas's seat in the Senate, Paul Simon, the bow-tied battler for civil rights and civil liberties. Durbin describes the late Simon as "my closest friend in political life."

"If you want to know where Dick Durbin is coming from, you have to understand his connections to Paul Douglas and Paul Simon, which I think taught him that you don't need to put your finger in the wind every time an issue comes up," says Dawn Clark Netsch, a former Illinois legislator and gubernatorial candidate. "Dick learned that you can have good political instincts and still have principles. In fact, he learned that you have to have good political instincts if you're going to stand on principle and win."

More than anyone else, Simon paved the way for Durbin in politics, ultimately tapping his former aide to inherit Simon's Senate seat in 1996. Simon knew Durbin was ready. During his previous seven terms in the US House, Durbin had led fights to scrap funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative, to defend funding for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program and to ban smoking on planes (Durbin, who was 14 when his father died of lung cancer, has fought what Congressional Quarterly describes as a "relentless campaign against the tobacco industry"). Durbin was not always a perfect progressive. Though he now gets 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, he started in politics as a foe of abortion rights. And his first House race, in 1982, benefited from a dramatic infusion of pro-Israel money that helped him depose former Republican Representative Paul Findley, a thoughtful critic of Israeli policies who wanted the United States to develop better relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. There was a time when liberals in Illinois and beyond saw Durbin as someone who played the game of politics a little too well. But, says Arab American Institute president Jim Zogby, Durbin's record in Congress has won over doubters. "For my part, I've always looked at Durbin as a progressive Democrat, but he has really emerged in that regard in recent years," says Zogby. "In particular, his commitment to civil liberties has been extraordinary."

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