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The best Senate Minority Leader

By Bruce Walker
web posted November 8, 2004

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., waves to supporters after delivering his concession speech on November 3 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., waves to supporters after delivering his concession speech on November 3 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The defeat of Tom Daschle and John Kerry should have sent a wake up call to the entire Democratic Party. Democrats now have fewer Senate seats than at any time since before Franklin Roosevelt was president.

Moreover, the combined defeat of their Minority Leader and the loss of four Senate seats -- which could have been much worse, if Senator Ben "Nighthorse" Campbell in Colorado had run for reelection or Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn had run against Senator Patty Murray or Governor Mike Huckabee against Senator Blanche Lincoln -- should make Democrats understand just how unpopular the national party is in Flyover Country.

The Senate prospects for Democrats in 2006 do not look good. There is not a single Republican senator in the class of 2006 that looks even remotely vulnerable. Even Republican senators from the three states that Kerry won -- Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania -- are prohibitive favorites for reelection.

Democrats in 2000 won every close race, and so their 2006 class is filled with potentially vulnerable senators who won with paper thin pluralities in states that President Bush carried, or almost carried, in 2004 – Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, and Debbie Strabenow of Michigan -- or senators from strongly Republican states like Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

That class is also full of very old Democrats like Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Dianne Feinstein of California who come from states with very popular Republican governors. It includes an eighty-four years old Robert Byrd who comes from a state that President Bush carried easily and Herbert Kohl, who will be seventy-one in 2006 and who comes from Wisconsin, a state with a popular former Republican governor and a Republican state legislature and a state that was evenly split in the presidential election.

The 2006 class also includes Jim Jeffords, who Republicans will make a point of trying to defeat in the midterm elections, perhaps with popular two-term governor Jim Douglas, who just won a resounding second term and who would have in Washington much more clout, even as a "moderate" Republican, than Jeffords will have as a loathed turncoat.

John Corzine of New Jersey and Tom Carper of Delaware appear the only two Democrat seats which are genuinely safe in 2006, and that could change quickly if Republicans capture New Jersey state government (including the gubernatorial election which will soon be near) or if Rep. Michael Castle, the Republican Congressman from Delaware, challenges Carper on the perfectly reasonable ground that he would have much more influence in Washington than Carper ever will.

This means that Democrats, who currently have only forty-four senators to fifty-five Republicans, could potentially lose a dozen seats in the mid-term election in two years. More realistically, Democrats face some losses in the midterm elections with three probably a low ball figure and seven probably a high ball figure.

Senator Joseph Lieberman

Much will depend upon how seriously President Bush is about defeating Senate Democrats. As Daschle has learned now in two successive elections, trying to play President Bush the fool is very foolish indeed. Democrats have a golden opportunity to recover lost ground by selecting a Minority Leader who can work with Senator Bill Frist and President Bush. The obvious choice is Senator Joseph Lieberman.

No one can seriously doubt that Lieberman is a liberal Democrat. He has also been a loyal Democrat and was, of course, the running mate of Al Gore. Lieberman comes from a traditionally liberal and Democrat state. In ideological and partisan terms, Joe Lieberman should have to apologize to no one in the Democrat Party. What he possesses, however, could be invaluable to his party and to America.

First, he is civil. He does not engage in vicious ad hominem attacks. It is impossible not to respect that quality. When I see Lieberman on television, his calm and polite demeanor reminds me of Governor Richardson of New Mexico, who is doubtless all wrong on policies and politics, but who does not engage in puerile name calling and sneering condescension.

Second, Senator Lieberman seems to really care some about those values -- honesty, respect for the sincerely held beliefs of others, seriousness and modesty -- which make democracy work. This does not mean that he will compromise his principles on issues but rather that he will have the tools to agree when his principles are in accord with what the opposition wants.

Third, Joe Lieberman seems to genuinely want peace in the Middle East. That means his criticisms of administration policy will be constructive criticism, not transitory point-scoring. There is not a single thing wrong, in a healthy democracy, with loyal opposition in time of war. That requires a common strategic goal with disagreements on tactics and operations.

Democrats, if they are smart, will quickly coalesce around Senator Lieberman as a responsible and serious floor leader. If they do, then filibusters will be used carefully and obstruction of Republican policies on procedural grounds seasoned with reasonableness and compromise. If, however, Senate Democrats choose a firebrand or a fake, then expect two years from now for a much worse November than 2002 or 2004: a filibuster proof Senate which can, will and should run roughshod over an angry minority.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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