Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Perils of Being a Senator

In Mike's post from Dec. 2, Is Barack Obama a Lightweight? (Yes, but in a good way), he argues persuasively that not being "weighed down by long tenure in the Senate" would be politically advantageous to potential presidential candidate Barack Obama. This argument hinges on the idea that having "an encumbering paper trail" in the Senate gives opponents too many votes to distort in attack advertisements. Another way that a long Senate career can hurt a presidential aspirant was demonstrated by the Republicans' attack on John Kerry in 2004 as not having "accomplished" anything in a long Senate career. For example, Rep. Henry Gonzalez went on "The Daily Show" during the campaign and challenged the audience to name one major accomplishment for which Kerry was responsible. When no one answered (from an audience that was given no opportunity to reply), Gonzalez's satisfied grin showed that he clearly felt that he had scored a huge point. This ignored Kerry's important leadership on POW-MIA issues, but why should the facts stand in the way of a good smear?

Of course, it's possible (even desirable) to have a long Senate career without having sponsored signature legislation. For my tastes, Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio was an extremely good Senator for many years. So far as I know, there's no Metzenbaum-Smith Act or any such thing on the books. But he was always on the side of an issue that I wanted him to take. Had he run for president, though, we would have had a hard time saying what he had "accomplished." The Senate is simply not a place where one can run up a list of accomplishments for which one can take major credit, in part because everyone is so jealous of each other that they all get their fingers in each other's pies.

Interestingly, this logic could end up being applied to current Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain. Other than McCain-Feingold, for which the Right vilifies him (and which some on the left view as a mixed blessing, at best), what has he accomplished? "Being extremely conservative while becoming known as a centrist" is entirely a different kind of accomplishment.