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Amid Rumbling Discontent, Dems Head for the Exits

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Thursday, December 17, 2009

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scrambles to assemble 60 Democratic votes for health care legislation that, according to the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls, is opposed by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin, several Democratic members of the House are scrambling for the exits on what is starting to look like a sinking ship.

You may have noticed that I avoided using the cliche "rats leaving the sinking ship," because the four Democratic House members who over the last three weeks announced their decisions to retire rather than run for re-election cannot fairly be characterized as rats.

To the contrary, Dennis Moore (Kansas 3), John Tanner (Tennessee 8), Brian Baird (Washington 3) and Bart Gordon (Tennessee 6) are competent House members who between them have won election to Congress 36 times. Gordon is chairman of the House Science Committee; Tanner was offered an appointment to succeed Al Gore in the Senate in 1992; Baird was lead sponsor of measures to ensure the continuity of Congress in time of national disaster. All have claims to significant legislative accomplishments.

And to political success in marginal Democratic territory. Gordon and Tanner represent districts that voted heavily for John McCain in 2008; Moore's usually Republican district gave Barack Obama a small majority; Baird's suburban district has voted at just about the national average in the last three presidential elections.

All four cited plausible personal reasons for calling it quits, and none can be unaware that there is a robust job market in Washington for former Democratic congressmen with good political skills. Members of Congress make $174,000 a year; heads of trade associations make upward of $741,000 and don't have to return to home districts on weekends.

All four of these retiring members faced the prospect of tougher opposition in 2010 than they have encountered in years. Tanner and Gordon are from what I call the Jacksonian belt, the area settled by Scots-Irish southwest from West Virginia to Texas, where Barack Obama ran poorly in both primaries and the general election last year. Polls in nearby Jacksonian Arkansas have shown Democratic incumbents running even with or behind unknown Republican challengers.

Moore and Baird are from suburban districts where their views on cultural issues have been a political asset. But in the gubernatorial elections last month in Virginia and New Jersey, suburban voters brushed aside cultural issues and voted for Republicans who ran against higher taxes and big government. That suggests that Democrats in suburban House districts can't expect to match Obama's 2008 showings next year.

These four Democrats are not the only House members who aren't running for re-election, but all of the 12 Republican retirees and all but one of the seven other Democratic retirees are leaving the House to run for statewide office.

The question now is whether more Democrats of this ilk will choose to retire -- something House Democratic leaders have been working to prevent. They're very much aware that Republicans in 1994 won some 21 open seats in which Democratic incumbents did not seek re-election, nearly half the 52 seats the Republicans gained when they won control of the House that year.

Public opinion expresses itself in the legislative process in various ways. Democrats' current large majority in the House, which has enabled them to pass unpopular cap-and-trade and health care legislation, is largely the product of public discontent with George W. Bush's perceived nonfeasance on Katrina in 2005 and perceived malfeasance in Iraq in 2005 and later.

These four decisions to retire, and similar decisions by other Democrats that may come, seem (for all disclaimers of personal reasons) to be the product of public discontent with the policies of the Obama administration and congressional Democratic leaders in 2009. Such discontent, perceptible only in the Jacksonian belt last year, has now clearly spread to the suburbs of major metropolitan areas.

The odds are still against Republicans picking up the 41 seats they need for a House majority. But it's interesting that when Massachusetts Democrat Michael Capuano, fresh from a second-place finish in the primary for Edward Kennedy's Senate seat, was asked to tell the Democratic caucus what he had learned on the campaign trail, he replied in two words: "You're screwed." How many of those listening decided that it would be a good idea to spend more time with the family after 2010?

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner.

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