You Ain't No Friend of Mine

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Dodd, Dorgan, and Senate discontent.

Anyone care to wager on the Republicans' picking up 10 seats and taking control of the Senate this year? I didn't think so. Even the Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, is doubtful, and that's only partly because the GOP war chest ($8 million) is currently less than Tiger Woods's BlackBerry bill.

So why are the Democrats so queasy about the retirements of Sens. Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan? Because the news drove home the obvious point that the Democrats' chances of maintaining a 60-vote supermajority are slim in midterm elections that almost always hurt the party in the White House. Even in the unlikely event they win red North Dakota, Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), Michael Bennet (Colorado), and--in the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished department--Harry Reid (Nevada) are in trouble. Holding 60 is hard: last week Democrats were gobsmacked with the realization that in 2011 and '12 they will likely accomplish little in Congress.

That's because we're in an Era of Sour Feelings, when GOP obstruction and Democratic fears are stinking up the once clubby cloakroom. Cross-aisle friendships are almost nonexistent now. Whether the explanation is conservatives who are terrified that smiling at a liberal will bring a primary challenge from an unhinged tea-bagger, or the unintended consequences of ethics rules limiting convivial junkets, it's on many a senator's mind: the place is broken.

Refreshingly, Dodd admits he's leaving, in part, because he was headed for a shellacking (Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will likely keep Connecticut blue). But he also cites the death of close friend Ted Kennedy. Dorgan might well have hung on to his seat. He told me that, after four decades in politics, this was his last chance to do something else with his life: "I don't want to be here at 80 sucking Cream of Wheat through a straw."

But it's well known in the Senate that, like many of his colleagues, Dorgan is heartsick about the institution. He is a real prairie populist; he quotes the late Texas senator Ralph Yarborough defining populism as "putting the jam on the lower shelf so everyone can reach it." In today's Senate, it takes 60 votes just to unlock the cupboard. …