Former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young gave a seemingly odd but increasingly common reason last week as to why he's not running for Georgia's open Senate seat next year. "I was afraid I'd win," he said. "Winning would mean I would spend the next seven years of my life in Washington, and Washington is not always the center of action."
Young's decision isn't welcome news for Democrats -- it leaves the party without a front-runner to succeed conservative Democrat Zell Miller -- and it's yet another example of how leaders of both parties are having difficulty as they try to recruit Senate candidates next year.
The GOP has had a worse time with this task. Republicans have yet to field a strong candidate to vie for retiring freshman Peter Fitzgerald's seat in Illinois. Several Democrats who could have faced difficult elections next year -- such as Patty Murray in Washington and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas -- are likely to win another term because the Republicans' top choices opted out.
Meanwhile, Democrats are seeking out candidates in North Carolina and South Carolina to succeed John Edwards and Ernest Hollings, respectively, but so far only a lackluster group has emerged. And Bob Graham may have dropped out of the presidential race yesterday, but he still has not announced whether he will seek a fourth Senate term from Florida. His indecisiveness is costing potential Democratic candidates valuable time in what is sure to be a competitive race should he opt not to run.
Washington has long been a source of complaint for politicians, even as they ask voters to send them here. But in the past, plenty have run for Congress anyway. So the reluctance of politicians like Young to step in when the party needs them most is troubling. Yes, spending six years in Washington may not sound like a dream job, especially if Democrats remain in the minority. But, with the margin of control between the parties so narrow, it's incumbent on party leaders to pressure promising candidates to run, and to lean on incumbents to stay in seats that could go to the other party if they retire.
Contrast the sentiments of Young and others with the attitude of a group of "Old Bull" Democrats profiled by David Broder in Monday's Washington Post. Their 21 seats would surely go to Republicans if they resigned. Many of these lawmakers are in their 60s and 70s; they could easily decide to leave Washington and spend more time with their families back home, or make a bundle as lobbyists in the private sector. And as members of the minority, which has next to no power in the House, there's little chance that their legislation can get a fair hearing.
But all are determined to stay in Congress because they enjoy serving their constituents, can't imagine doing anything else or simply want to do what the minority does best -- criticize the majority.
"I'm not frustrated at all," Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) told Broder. "I give the Republicans hell every day. Since the Republicans vote in lockstep, our role is to show the public their shortcomings. And who's to say we won't take the House back some day?"
Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) said his anger at President Bush's attitude toward spending legislation last winter "enraged" him so much, he "could hardly see. It motivated me to stay around here another 10 years."
Of course, these House members remember what it was like to be in the majority and to actually have the power to convene hearings, run the congressional calendar and push through legislation. What's more, they're only asked to make two-year commitments in office, unlike senators, who have to sign up for six.
But in 2000, when Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) died suddenly, Miller stepped in and won. Last year, Frank Lautenberg came out of retirement to keep Robert Torricelli's New Jersey seat safely in the Democratic column. If Democrats have any hope of taking back the Senate, party leaders need to do a better job of assuring candidates that their time in Washington -- whether they're representing the majority or minority party's views -- will be worthwhile. The Old Bull Democrats are good advertisements for that sentiment. After all, the last thing a candidate should be afraid of is winning.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.