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Why Are Senators So Cynical and Immoral?

Matt Yglesias is still puzzling through "the high degree of cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics.” The question isn't the mechanism: Desire for reelection provides plenty of explanation for why people make awful compromises to ensure their safety. The question, rather, is why people are so interested in being reelected. Yglesias writes:

If some weird situation somehow resulted in me becoming a United States Senator, I would spend six years making trouble, having fun, and trying to do the right thing. Probably I’d lose a primary or something since I wasn’t bothering to raise money or campaign. Then I’d write a book about it.

I think it’d be a blast. And I think that’d also be the totally intuitive way to handle the situation. Obviously that’s also why I never will be a powerful politician. Instead, we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power. But it still strikes me as a very odd mentality.

I've got three hypotheses on this:

1) Very few senators are simply appointed. Instead, they're people who have managed to be reelected in a bunch of other jobs, like congressman, or governor. As such, the path to being a senator selects for extremely high levels of reelection desire. Otherwise, the individuals wouldn't have risen high enough to contest the job in the first place. They would have lost their second run for mayor or something.

2) Senators are very egotistical. They know they may not be making appropriate choices. But they justify that by saying that their defeat will result in someone much, much, worse. A guy like Ben Nelson can plausibly tell himself that his concessions ensure the presence of a reliable vote for Harry Reid to remain the majority leader. If he were to begin supporting a more liberal agenda, he would quickly lose, and though his Republican replacement wouldn't be as galling to liberals, he or she would be much worse for liberalism. Viewed that way, these concessions are a tremendous victory for progressivism.

3) Maybe there's less cynicism and immorality than Matt thinks. When we imagine senators making unsavory compromises, it's usually a fairly small slice in the center. The basic tenets of health-care reform can count on a good 50+ votes. At least 30 or 40 of those are solid, fairly progressive senators who never get dragged into conversations like this. These are your Barbara Mikulskis, your Maria Cantwells, your Herb Kohls. But a couple folks with relatively unsafe seats or uncommonly weak principles get all the attention because their votes can't be taken for granted. This is accepted behavior because there's not a lot that can be done about it, but it's not typical behavior. If every member of the Senate demanded as many concessions and as much stroking as Ben Nelson, nothing would ever get done.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 26, 2009; 3:01 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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There's also a principled reason to go for reelection. If you are passionate about (say) health care reform and you are a first-term U.S. Senator, the best thing to do might be to just get on the Finance committee and fight tooth and nail in every election to build up the seniority that will allow you to potentially be chairman some day.

Beyond just the Senate seniority rules, though, the longer you spend in office, the more power, knowledge, and influence you have. So it can be perfectly rational and selfless to try to hang onto your seat as long as you can, potentially making some tradeoffs to ensure your continued electability in order to better position yourself to get things done in the future (see e.g. Ted Kennedy, topically).

Posted by: Mike_Russo | August 26, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I find it amusing that so many on the left, such as this scribbler, don't have the maturity to understand that people can actually disagree with their politics and not be cynical, immoral, or egotistical. Furthermore these childish rants are never challenged or even recognized on the left. When they are pointed out, the critics are attacked ad hominem as well.

Posted by: sceptic5 | August 26, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

sceptic5: even some conservatives have a hard time understanding opposition to universal healthcare:

Posted by: Castorp1 | August 26, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Matthew Yglesias's proposed career path sounds a lot like Mike Gravel's approach to being a Senator back in the early 70s. I'm not sure that worked out so well for him. Being a senator, like with other careers, means you have to focus on what you will do afterwards, as well. Few Senators have jobs they can just go back to after they're done. You can't just stir up trouble and leave after 6-12 years. You have to build the friendships and relationships that are going to give you a post-Senate job.

Posted by: constans | August 26, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Matt's own cynicism is readily apparent in this piece, in his postulate that some "weird situation" results in his becoming a senator. In real life, Senators have to be elected by the voters, which means that they have to do a lot of persuasion and a lot of listening to the needs, hopes, and fears of constituents.

Matt is basically asking, "why do senators listen to the voters?" Yes, it in their interest for re-election, but it's also the fundamental basis of our entire system of representative government and democratic elections. Matt is essentially acknowledging that most Americans don't share his views and aren't likely to be persuaded to adopt them.

Moreover, I don't recall Matt extolling the joy of senators "making trouble and having fun" when Joe Lieberman was voting for the war and flirting with the McCain ticket.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 26, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

But still Senate and Senators are not good and suck:

- First and far most, small state over representation is there. That is basic contradiction and slap in the face of 'people's will'.

- Next, Senators are too egoistic and in the end quite harmful to this Republic. Very, very few initiatives and fundamental transformations seem like originated in Senate; notwithstanding individual brilliance like Ted or late Paul Wellstone or Patrick Moynihan or LBJ.

- The do not show the guts to stand the political wind or White House. Exhibit A - Iraq war resolution or B - Harry Reid on Senate floor declaring 'Iraq War is Lost' when Bush was gutsy, adding soldiers to clean up the mess in some sense. Exhibit C – Failure of Bush / McCain Immigration bill

- Same dynamics is at works in Health Care. Neither the Senate would pass a good bill, nor will have strength to tell Americans and President how correctly it can be done.

In short, except few occasions, we see quite less leadership from this Chamber for all their puffed Whigs, pompousness, high profile and rarity. In political cost benefit analysis, Senate is more expense for Americans than what benefits it brings them.

Posted by: umesh409 | August 26, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Were you alive for the Iraq War vote? Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chris Dodd -- all for it. And how many of them were for it on the merits?

Posted by: jamusco | August 26, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Although it was charitable of you to correct Matt's write / right typo, Ezra, the resulting quote loses a little of that Yglesias charm. ;)

Posted by: cog145 | August 26, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

"A guy like Ben Nelson can plausibly tell himself that his concessions ensure the presence of a reliable vote for Harry Reid to remain the majority leader. If he were to begin supporting a more liberal agenda, he would quickly lose, and though his Republican replacement wouldn't be as galling to liberals, he or she would be much worse for liberalism. Viewed that way, these concessions are a tremendous victory for progressivism."

Here's the problem with that:

If several guys like Ben Nelson all got together and voted for Medicare for All (which might even be able to go through reconciliation and require only 51 votes), then this would do so much immense good for so long, like Medicare for seniors or the New Deal, that it would dwarf the bad of Republicans taking over these few seats for a relatively short while, and voting only a little more right than they would.

Moreover, like with the New Deal, once people actually experienced how much better it made their lives, and how false the propaganda was, it would create enormous gratitude and political capital for the Democrats, like the New Deal did, allowing the Democrats, and their agenda, to dominate for generations, forcing the Republican party to move far to the right to survive, and ushering in the Great American Middle Class.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | August 26, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Please change "far to the right" to "far to the left" in my comment above, sorry. Again, boy I wish I could polish comments

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | August 26, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

I should add to my initial comment, you have to pick your spots carefully with this, and not do it too often due to trust problems.

Done rarely, though, for things of extreme benefit, like Medicare for All, where once the public experiences it and sees firsthand the falseness of the propaganda, and how much better it makes their lives, so they end up being grateful and admiring your courage (by and large), for something like that, which Medicare for All is, the benefit to the country of Senators like Nelson voting it in dwarfs the cost.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | August 26, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

'A guy like Ben Nelson can plausibly tell himself that his concessions ensure the presence of a reliable vote for Harry Reid to remain the majority leader'

I think that's a bit unfair, to cast what concessions can produce in such an intensely political light. Concessions on one issue can also mean there's a vote for positive reform on health care, foreign relations, education etc.

Posted by: benjp | August 26, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

And then there's Specter.

Posted by: pj_camp | August 26, 2009 6:43 PM | Report abuse

jamusco - that is the point. When White House was pressurizing Senators, they fell in line and voted for Iraq resolution by 72 - 21 (Ted, Finegold, Boxer opposed). So no true leadership at that time.

Then when true war supporters would have made some sense, all these Senators by then had gone into 'war lost' camp because that was where the winds were blowing.

So where is the Senate Leadership? The leadership which has the foresight and vision? None.

Hence, I say that Senate is spine less and generally incapable of producing anything worthwhile.

Posted by: umesh409 | August 26, 2009 8:59 PM | Report abuse

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