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Uncertain times for old-school Democrats

Key congressional incumbents are stepping aside. Angry voters want change, making others unexpectedly vulnerable in this year's midterm elections.

May 10, 2010|By Janet Hook, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — When Democrats' landmark healthcare bill passed the House one exceptionally balmy Sunday in March, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) celebrated by playing his beloved harmonica on a Capitol balcony overlooking the Washington Mall. His anthem: "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

With its echo of Bob Dylan and the 1960s, the song was an apt choice for an old-school liberal like Obey, a member of Congress since 1969. But within earshot of the Capitol that weekend were signs that the times might be changing in other ways too: "Tea party" protesters on the Capitol lawn hurled epithets at Democrats — some tinged with bigotry — as passage of the healthcare overhaul drew near.

These are awkward times for the Democratic Old Guard. With President Obama in the White House, long-held goals are finally being achieved, but even as they savor their victories, senior Democrats are facing midterm elections that make them unexpectedly vulnerable.

In the eyes of many surly voters, they are part of the problem: established, entrenched incumbents who have grown out of touch with the country.

If Obey had not decided to retire, he would have faced the toughest race of his career. Other Democratic powerbrokers facing unwonted jeopardy this election year are House Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri and Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia.

Looming over all of them is the memory of 1994, when Democrats did not just lose control of Congress; Republicans also felled some of the tallest trees in the House, including Speaker Tom Foley of Washington.

In less volatile times, it was almost unthinkable that party leaders or committee chairs would be in danger of being dumped.

Last year, Nathan  L. Gonzales, an editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, predicted that few Democrats would want to quit in this election cycle.

"I was saying Democratic retirements would be low because what's the incentive to leave? This is prime time," Gonzales said. "It turned out to be a much rougher go of it than Democrats expected."

Fewer Democrats than Republicans have decided not to seek reelection in 2010, but it is expected to be a bad year for the president's party at the polls. The party that controls the White House and Congress often loses some seats in off-year voting. Now, anti-incumbent sentiment arising from voters' economic anxiety is being channeled more at Democrats because they are in power.

That political climate made it particularly hard for incumbents like Sen. Christopher J. Dodd to run for reelection — even in a Democratic bastion like Connecticut. In announcing his retirement in January, Dodd said he was in the toughest political shape of his career, in part because of embarrassing controversies that suggested he was too cozy with moneyed interests.

The decision to bow out came as Dodd was putting the finishing touches on his legislative life's work — and that of his legendary friend, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) — in the healthcare overhaul. Now he is leading the charge on another legislative landmark, the financial industry overhaul.

Against that backdrop, it was jarringly dissonant for Dodd to say recently: "There are moments for each elected public servant to step aside and let someone else step up. This is my moment to step aside."

Obey was not under such intense political pressure, although he was facing serious competition from a Republican who is tapping into the tea party spirit of voter anger. But like Dodd, Obey is stepping down at the apex of his congressional power.

An unreconstructed liberal, Obey thought of retiring after the 2000 election, but changed his mind when confronted with the policies of a stubborn Republican president, George W. Bush. "I decided to stick around as long as he was here," Obey said.

Then, with Obama's inauguration in 2009, Obey stepped onto the sturdiest legislative platform of his lifetime: He had the appropriations chair, a Democrat in the White House and the largest Democratic majority in Congress since before he was elected.

But in the face of monumental deficits and political pressure to reduce them, Obey has had to deal with spending curbs and cutbacks for programs he has been yearning to expand.

"He is chairman of the Appropriations Committee at a time when a Democratic president is telling him not to adequately fund domestic programs," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a fellow liberal with decades of seniority.

Obey insists that he is not retiring because he fears losing his seat.

"I've won 25 elections," he said. "Does anybody really think I don't know how to win another one?"

But Republicans saw his decision as vindicating a key element of their 2010 campaign strategy: to mount vigorous challenges against Democrats who have not had to run hard for reelection in a long time.

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