Will the Senate Tip? | The Nation


Will the Senate Tip?

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Just imagine how different hearings by the Intelligence Committee would be if West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller IV were sitting in the chairman's seat, as opposed to Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, a man whose plodding approach to the Bush Administration's misuse of intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction represents an epic failure of legislative oversight.

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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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“It is unacceptable that the Defense Department continues to waste massive amounts of money,” Sanders argues.

Out of the Senate debate over another sellout to the big banks comes the clarion call for a new populist politics.

By the same token, if Kerry makes it to the Oval Office his attempts to address the disastrous failure to fund No Child Left Behind education programs would certainly be affected by whether the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee was chaired by New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg, the chief Senate defender of Bush's mandate-rich but cash-starved education agenda, or Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, one of the few senators who is not afraid to talk about fully funding federal mandates. Indeed, Common Cause president Chellie Pingree suggests that while a Democratic Senate could be counted on to temper Bush, it could also be counted on to push Kerry in a more progressive direction. "The Senate can really focus the debate and get a President to pay attention to matters that need to be resolved," says Pingree, a former Maine legislator who was defeated in a 2002 US Senate race. "A President may come in wanting to be cautious, wanting to govern from the center on major issues like energy policy, Medicare, prescription drugs. The Senate, when it is controlled by his own party, can push him to take tougher stands--I actually expect that would happen more with a President Kerry and a Democratic Senate."

That's certainly what Corzine, one of the most progressive members of the Senate, is counting on. Suggestions that Democrats might actually come out of the 2004 election season with a President and control of the Senate provoked laughter when Corzine took over the DSCC in late 2002, after the Democrats had lost control of the Senate in one of the worst midterm election setbacks ever for an opposition party. While the fight for dominance in the House of Representatives, where Republicans now hold an eleven-seat majority, could turn out to be competitive if Kerry takes off as a candidate, the Senate, where Republicans hold only a two-seat majority, is already up for grabs. That doesn't mean that Democrats will retake the chamber. It just means that they have a chance to do so.

"When I came in, people were talking about minimizing losses," recalls Corzine, a first-term senator who shook up the DSCC to make it more flexible and efficient and who gets credit for improving Democratic fortunes. He's been a particularly effective recruiter of candidates and has convinced a number of state parties, though not all of them, to pull together and avoid bitter primary fights. And, although there are still worries about the extent to which Democratic contenders will be outspent in most states, he has persuaded fellow Democratic senators to raise money for candidates in competitive races. But Corzine is the first to admit that "we've gotten some political breaks that no one could have predicted: Republican retirements that offset our retirements and, maybe even more important, a shift in the mood regarding the direction of the country." Lingering concerns about the economy are one factor; the other is that the war in Iraq no longer plays as positively as it once did.

On a recent campaign day in Appleton, Wisconsin, a Republican-leaning city that produced Senator Joseph McCarthy, Democratic Senator Feingold got a flavor of the changing mood. When Feingold, who won a second term in one of the closest races of 1998 and is seeking a third term this year, stopped into the Copper Rock Coffee Company, he encountered a group of locals who wanted to talk about the mess in Iraq. Feingold, who voted against the war, called it a "monumental failure of American foreign policy," and many customers nodded in agreement. "People are really ill at ease about the war," he says. "I think that makes it a lot harder for the Administration to question the patriotism of Democrats who disagree, or who seek a better debate."

That's a big deal, because in 2002 patriotism--defined as support for the President--proved to be a factor in the Democrats' loss of the Senate. The most well-known example was Georgia Senator Max Cleland, the disabled Vietnam War vet who lost after being accused--directly in Republican attack ads and indirectly in Bush campaign appearances that suggested the "patriotic" vote was for his GOP opponent--of lacking the commitment to defend the country. White House political czar Karl Rove had planned to make national security issues a centerpiece of Republican campaigning in 2004 as well, but that's become a dicier strategy as Americans have become more and more disturbed by the Administration's conduct of the war in Iraq--and by the thought that, as Feingold and others suggest, Bush has steered resources away from the real war on terror.

The Abu Ghraib prison-abuse photos have taken their toll on Bush even in states like Oklahoma, where Democrats hope to pick up a Republican-held Senate seat. "He's not near as popular in Oklahoma as he was. He's lost a lot of support out here," says Myrna Burman, the veteran political director of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO, of Bush. "I'm not saying that somebody's going to beat him here, but he has gone down. I think a lot of people are worried about him. They may not express that worry by voting against him. But they might do it by voting for a Democrat for the Senate--somebody to keep an eye on him."

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