If I were a more autocratic boss, Tim Fernholz would be having a very bad day for his rather sanguine reaction to the news that Sen. Chris Dodd is retiring. Yes, Tim, it is a bad, and sad thing -- unless one's only interest is in "freeing up resources for other races" at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
I have one indelible memory of Dodd: In the hours before the giant welfare reform bill passed in 1996, I found Dodd huddled in a corner off the Senate floor cajoling Orrin Hatch (successfully) to agree to more funding for child care. And I remember thinking that while the rest of us liberal staffers were preparing our 24 bosses to wax eloquently about how tragic the bill would be for poor families, and vote an emphatic No, here was someone who was going to do all that, and yet was also determined to find a way to make it less bad, to squeeze some benefit out of it. In those moments, he was very much in the Ted Kennedy mold. At some moments, he was even more effective than Kennedy just because he was less of a symbolic, divisive, Olympian figure. Even in some of the ugliest moments in American politics, he seemed to take a joy in the work, in finding those moments when some good could be achieved.
And, yes, it's true: Sen. Dodd raised money from AIG employees in his state. But that says nothing about him -- that is our system. Every single senator except those who finance their own campaigns does the same. And no senator has done more to challenge and change that very system than Dodd, who until a mid-life marriage was consistently the poorest senator in a body loaded with self-financers. Dodd' support not just of mild campaign finance reform like the 2002 McCain-Feingold law, but of full public financing so that journeys to AIG headquarters would be unnecessary, was long-standing. He was the only candidate in the 2008 primaries to put the issue of campaign reform high on his agenda.
It's too bad that Dodd chose 2008 to finally follow through on his long wish to run for president. It was a tough field to break out of -- the opportunity just wasn't there. And in the course of it, he seems to have lost his connection to Connecticut's voters -- although I think that with enough time, he would have come back to win re-election. But even if he had, it's not as easy to function in the Senate the way Dodd (and Kennedy) did: to be partisan and unabashedly liberal and yet also find ways to work with people with whom they disagreed. That alone makes this a sad piece of news. But without the pressures of reelection, perhaps it will free Dodd to complete the work on financial regulation and the other issues he cares about -- including, I hope, campaign reform -- before he is able to at last spend more time with his two young daughters.
-- Mark Schmitt
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