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Posted at 11:56 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Kent Conrad to retire

By Ezra Klein


This week, Joe Lieberman and Kent Conrad both announced that they wouldn't be seeking reelection to the Senate in 2012. For a variety of reasons, Lieberman's retirement attracted a lot more attention. But Conrad's is almost certainly more meaningful.

For one thing, Conrad comes from North Dakota. And North Dakota, unlike Connecticut, tilts red. John McCain won it by eight points in the 2008 election. With a presidential campaign nationalizing congressional races in 2012, it's a pretty safe bet that Conrad's replacement won't be a Democrat.

But Conrad also plays a more important role for Senate Democrats. He's either chaired or been ranking member on the Budget Committee since 2001. That's doesn't just mean that he knows a lot about the budget, but that he knows a lot about how to put a budget together -- and the budget process is governed by some pretty strange and abstruse rules.

Conrad isn't universally beloved in the party. Plenty of Democrats consider him too conservative for the post, and think he spends too much time peacocking over the deficit. He gets a black mark for being big on farm subsidies, thought that's sort of like saying he gets a black mark for being from North Dakota. He also has some odd ideas about the French health-care system.

But most Senate Democrats also say Conrad is among the smartest senators, and that he comes through when needed: He voted against both sets of the Bush tax cuts, worked with the Obama administration to include a reconciliation option for health-care reform, and has been a major defender of the stimulus proposals. And there is no one in the Senate who likes charts even half as much as Conrad does:

In 2001 the staff of the Senate rules Committee called Kent Conrad's office with a complaint — and a solution. The North Dakota Democrat was using more charts than all the other senators combined, so to free printing time for others, they gave him his own equipment. Last month, during his 37-minute opening statement in the battle over the budget, Conrad went through 37 charts. "We call him chart man," teases Republican Whip Mitch McConnell.

For that alone, he'll be missed.

Photo credit: By Alex Brandon/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  | January 20, 2011; 11:56 AM ET
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Huh?... I bet the public does not think of Conrad as the chart man!

I have often wondered why more politicians don't use charts and graphics to illustrate their point. (A picture is worth a thousand words and all of that.) Sadly, you rarely see a chart prepared by a public figure actually presented on TV. Nor do they use the chart to make their point when talking with the visual media on the record. Print media rarely give up space to present a political figures graphics either..... they settle for the suits at a desk photo op.

I think the military press briefings made good use of graphics with their flip charts and a bit of these presentations were actually shown on TV during the military offensives. Currently Austin Goolsby(?) is true to his academic roots and brings a white board with him to speak with the press and cable guys to make his economic points. (He is also razzed about his penchant for communicating with figures....) I have often wondered if Ross Perot, maybe the last politician to use graphics, forever discredited this form of communication.

Since political discourse in this country is so trivial and banal perhaps a solution is for politicians to follow Conrad's very smart examples and raise the level of the debate by showing facts in graphic form.... If they can't put their ideas or facts into a clean graphic... well that tells you something about their thinking!

Posted by: mschneid1 | January 20, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

So the innumerate dumbass who wanted to "get serious" about the deficit by extending the Bush tax cuts is one of the smartest Senators? Well, that would explain a lot...

Posted by: labonnes | January 20, 2011 1:43 PM | Report abuse

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