When Ben Nelson announces his plans to retire from the United States Senate (as he’s expected to do today)… progressive Democrats will start popping the champagne corks at seeing one of the bains of their existence finally go away. They shouldn’t.
Nelson’s Senate tenure is a classic study in big tent politics — the kind that at this point, pretty much only the Democrats play (Republicans have exactly three moderates in their caucus: the two Senators from Maine and the soon-to-be former, short-lived Republican Senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, though all three vote with Mitch McConnell on pretty much every “leadership” (read filibuster) vote.)
For Democrats, being a majority in the Senate, and formerly the House, meant tolerating the presence of some pretty unpleasant characters if you’re of the liberal persuasion: Nelson, Blanche Lincoln (the former Senator from Arkansas), Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, ex-Senator Evan Bayh (who left his party high and dry by vacating his seat mid-term…) the newest member of the club, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and of course, Joe Lieberman.
Those Senators tended to vote their state, not their party line, when it came to critical industries like oil and gas (Landrieu), big business and big agriculture (Bayh) and for Lieberman and Nelson in particular: Big Insurance. In fact, it wasn’t really a joke to call Nelson the Senator from Mutual of Omaha, because that’s precisely how he voted. Whatever big insurers wanted, Nelson (and Lieberman) delivered. If Nelson had stayed in, run for re-election next year and won, he would have continued to do so. And rank and file Democrats (and I suspect at least some Senate Democrats) would continue to hate him.
So Nelson not running for re-election is good news for liberals, tired of the crowd that killed the public option, right? Wrong. Ben Nelson is from NEBRASKA, which has voted for the Republican candidate for president in every election sine 1964. Nebraska gave its whopping five Electoral College votes to John McCain in 2008 by a commanding 57 percent to 42 percent for Barack Obama. And the state is so sparsely populated, it has had five Electoral College votes SINCE 1964.
Nebraska’s population is 88 percent white — just 4 percent black. If you bump into a black person in Nebraska, CALL ME, because you will blow my mind. Nebraska is so remote, no one even knows who the other Senator is … (okay, his name is Mike Johanns and he’s a Republican. But I had to look that up.)
This is not a swing state, people. A Republican is highly likely to win Nelson’s seat. No, actually it’s a guarantee. This state would probably vote for Ron Paul for president if he were to mess around and be the Republican nominee. A progressive candidate would stand no chance, even in the primary.
Just ask Blanche Lincoln how this plays out.
And hold the champagne.
UPDATE: The only shot Nebraska Democrats have is Bob Kerrey, but trust me, working at a chichy, book learnin’ university in Sodom and Gamorrah on the Hudson ain’t gonna help.
UPDATE 2: A helpful link for you — Ben Nelson’s voting history. Yes, yes, you hate him. All progressives/liberals do. But how did Ben vote on the core issues that matter to you? Have a look…
And here’s a selection:
Nelson, loathed though he is by the left, voted AGAINST the absurd balanced budget amendment put forward by Republicans this year. He voted for the temporary extension of payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance. He was also a yes on Chuck Schumer’s failed “millionaires tax.” Nelson voted to limit farm subsidies to people with incomes below $1 million.
Nelson has voted for a host of really awful things (if you’re a liberal) — like extending the Patriot Act, for the ridiculous “cut, cap and balance” thing, for Boehner’s debt ceiling bill and against Harry Reid’s, and against anything that would even slightly inhibit the ability of oil companies to sod up America’s coastline.
But in December 2010, he was a crucial “yes” vote on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the temporary payroll tax cut (which just got extended by two months), for compensating 9/11 first responders, for allowing collective bargaining for public safety workers, for extending only the Bush tax cuts for those earning less than $1 million, for the START treaty, and against repealing the healthcare law.
In other words, like most blue dog Senators and Congressmen, Nelson was there for the Democratic leadership when it really counted, and went his own way, often on ideological totems to his state, that helped him stay in step with Nebraska’s right wing tilt. Many of the “message” votes didn’t really matter — Nelson’s vote didn’t cause the balanced budget bill to pass. Many of his votes with the Dem leadership really mattered, because again, we’re in the land of the Filibuster.
Do you want to know WHY the White House didn’t beat Nelson and Joe Lierberman up during the healthcare debate, or why Harry Reid didn’t strip them of their committee assignments? Because of those crucial votes.
Nelson is probably my least favorite Democrat. But he is a Democrat. And Democrats who can’t stand him will miss his vote on the things that matter, because … and this is important … there is NOT going to be a progressive Senator from Nebraska any time soon. And the Republican who replaces Nelson will never vote with Harry Reid.
Big tent politics.