By Luke Brinker
Two-term Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, is slated to announce his retirement in a Tuesday press conference. Much of the ensuing commentary will focus on the difficulties confronting the Democratic Party as they attempt to hold the seat in 2012. But the most annoying punditry will mention Nelson’s retirement as yet another sign of the death of bipartisan, “centrist” comity in the world’s greatest deliberative body.
Much the same reaction greeted Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh’s 2010 retirement announcement. Bayh, who decried Congress’s “brain-dead partisanship,” expressed his desire to move on to a profession in which he could actually get things done. So what’s Bayh up to now, more than a year after leaving the Senate? He’s currently a lobbyist, shilling for the US Chamber of Commerce.
Nelson, a multimillionaire former insurance company executive, will no doubt sound notes similar to those of Bayh. Many members of the commentariat will dutifully serve as Nelson’s stenographers, heralding the conservative Democrat as a patriotic voice of reason. Those more attuned to reality, however, should duly note Nelson’s role in making the Senate the increasingly dysfunctional chamber it is today.
In what Americans would consider a blatant act of bribery were it committed in any other nation, Nelson extracted a $45 billion concession from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in late 2009 in order to secure Nelson’s vote for health care reform. The so-called “Cornhusker Kickback,” designed solely to benefit Nebraska, permanently exempted the state from paying for an expansion of Medicaid. Federal taxpayers picked up the tab.
Lovers of bipartisanship regularly condemn the all-too-common use of the filibuster, and Nelson is complicit in some of its worst abuses. He stood against up-or-down votes on President Barack Obama’s National Labor Relations Board nominee, blocked a Senate vote on a Democratic bill to hire more teachers and firefighters, and opposed efforts to implement rules to rein in the filibuster’s use.
Other notable examples of Nelson’s bipartisanship include his vote for a constitutional amendment to write discrimination against gays and lesbians into the Constitution, support for a bankruptcy bill endorsed by the credit card industry, and support for the blood-, treasure-, and prestige-draining war in Iraq. Nelson’s centrist fans in the press corps may argue that a Nebraskan would have a hard time getting re-elected if he, say, came out for marriage equality, but isn’t the crux of the No Labels crowd’s argument that we need fewer politicians focused simply on the next election?
Whatever else happens in 2012, the retirement of Nelson and his fellow stonewalling senator Joe Lieberman ensure that there will be at least two things about which to be cheerful.
Update: For but one instance of Nelson hagiography from a Very Serious Person, check out John Avlon’s piece for The Daily Beast.