Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Next Tom Daschle: Byrd On A Wire?

The website of West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd boasts:

In 2000, West Virginia voters elected Senator Byrd to an eighth consecutive six-year term in the Senate, making him the only person in the history of the Republic to achieve that milestone. Senator Byrd has carried all 55 West Virginia counties three times (1970, 1994, and 2000), making him the first person to do so in contested statewide general elections. In May 2001, Senator Byrd cast his 16,000th roll call vote, giving him the distinction of casting more votes than any other Senator in history.

The New York Times refers to the old onetime Ku Klux Klansman, who as recently as 2001 casually used the phrase "white nigger" twice on national TV in a single weekend, as the Democratic Party's "revered elder statesman."

So on the face of it, Senator Byrd is anything but the next Tom Daschle - likely to be turned out by an electorate from whom he grows ever more distant.

But could Senator Byrd be next Tom Daschle after all? President Bush trounced Mr. Kerry in West Virginia by 13 percentage points, doubling his margin of victory in West Virginia from 2000. That's not a good as the 22 percentage point lead Mr. Bush racked up in South Dakota, but its still a huge lead and its 100% increase since 2000 is striking.

The electoral game played by Senators Byrd and Daschle have been similar: support for a Washington Democratic Party far to the left of their home states, balanced by huge loads of pork brought back to grateful home state voters. But like Senator Daschle, Senator Byrd's pork supplies have been trimmed by the persistent Republican control of the Senate.

Senator Byrd has another characteristic in common with his South Dakota counterpart: ambition to assume high office that puts him in the spot light and may obligate him to take positions a lot more consistent with his Washington, D.C. role than the views of his West Virginia constituency. For example, Senator Byrd has been very proud of his role as a rock ribbed "defender of Senate traditions." If the near future brings more Democratic filibuster of conservative judicial nominees, and the Republicans seek to relax the rule permitting such filibusters, Senator Byrd could find himself making some very dicey statements defending his colleagues' actions.

And Senator Byrd has one burden Tom Daschle did not have to bear: advanced age. Robert C. Byrd was born in 1917 - he's now 87years old and will be 90 years old when next up for election in 2006. Even by Senate standards, that's old, especially for someone who has to adapt to a rapidly changing constituency.

Perhaps Senator Byrd will avoid his Daschle problems another way: perhaps he won't run in 2006. But I wouldn't count on it.

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