In a tough economy, incumbency is the one job nobody wants.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Jan. 7 2010 5:27 AM

The Year of Running Dangerously

In a tough economy, incumbency is the one job nobody wants.

If Democrats could take any solace in Wednesday's sudden rush of retirements, it's that election-year surprises do a lot more damage in November than in January. At this point in the last four midterm cycles, the party that would eventually come up short—Democrats in 1994 and 2002, Republicans in 1998 and 2006—had no idea how badly their fortunes would erode by the fall. That won't be a problem for incumbents this year: Anyone running for re-election in hard times knows to expect a battle, not a picnic.

The coming year looked challenging enough before this week's flurry of farewells from Senate stalwarts Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. After two straight cycles with the wind at our back, Democrats already knew our luck had changed when some of our hardiest survivors in the heartland—Reps. John Tanner and Bart Gordon in Tennessee and Dennis Moore in Kansas—announced their retirements over the past month.

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Although Washington lives for the politics of the moment, it's a mistake to read too much of that into any of these leaders' decisions not to run again. Dodd, Tanner, and Moore have been in public office for more than 30 years and have now served in five decades. Dorgan was first elected 40 years ago and is serving in his sixth decade. Considering all that they've accomplished and how long they've fought the good fight, it's hard to fault any of them for choosing not to re-up.

Even for lifelong politicians, retirement is less a political decision than a personal one. Dodd's remarks Wednesday were particularly poignant. In addition to the political challenges he has faced over the past year, from managing four major bills and chairing two major committees to preparing for a tough campaign, he talked openly about the personal ones—losing his sister in July and his Senate brother Ted Kennedy in August, and fighting cancer himself. If it were just the uphill political battle, Dodd seemed to suggest, his decision might have been different.

In some ways, these latest retirements do more to underscore the sober realities of the midterm landscape than to alter them. Losing a senator from North Dakota is a bitter pill for Democrats, and the Tennessee and Kansas seats will be harder to hold without the Blue Dogs who are leaving them. But Attorney General Dick Blumenthal has a strong chance to hold on to Dodd's seat in Connecticut. With the right candidate, Democrats also might bounce back in Colorado. Voters are less likely to vent their frustrations on the incumbent when there isn't one.

Republicans will make their share of gains this year, in the same way AIG stock no longer trades at historic lows. But they, too, should be careful not to draw grand ideological conclusions from a political and economic climate that threatens sitting officeholders of either party.

Politics aside, the rash of retirements is a reminder that these are excruciatingly hard and unrewarding times to govern. Across the country, state and local officials have spent the past year lying awake at night with the same worry as their constituents—how to cut back enough to make ends meet. The coming year will be even worse.

Meanwhile, scores of incumbents around the country have watched their fortunes plummet. When the financial crisis hit in September 2008, 57 percent of Coloradans approved of Bill Ritter's job performance and only 28 percent disapproved. Now, according to Pollster.com, his ratings are upside-down—47 percent approval, 51 percent disapproval. Republican Tim Pawlenty's numbers in Minnesota aren't much better—shrinking from a 54-31 margin to 50-47 over the same period. Pawlenty thought about a third term and instead is gearing up to trade the perils of incumbency for the unencumbered life of a challenger.

Longtime members of Congress can't hide the sense that legislating is a much lonelier world than when they started. In his statement, Byron Dorgan alluded to his wish for "less rancor and more bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate." John Tanner, a founder of the Blue Dogs, has been a key player in just about every bipartisan achievement of the past two decades. He has proposed the smartest plan so far to reduce polarization and change the way Washington works: national legislation that would end partisan redistricting by turning it over to an independent commission in every state. For guys like Tanner, congressional Republicans' decision to abstain from governing for the foreseeable future means the unappealing prospect of still more polarization and less room for bipartisan achievements.

Polarization, rancor, and fatigue may be taking a toll on the Republican side as well. As Chris Cilizza points out, House Republicans already count 14 retirements, compared with 10 for House Democrats. Six Senate Republicans are vacating their seats, compared with five Senate Democrats. The GOP also must contend with its own anti-incumbent micro-storm—an energized Tea Party wing that is just as happy to throw out established Republicans.

Many strategists believe the best tactic for Democrats to limit the damage this fall is to try to make the election all about the GOP. That may help in individual races where the Republican nominee is too flaky for the state or district, but it didn't do much good this past year in Virginia and New Jersey. When people aren't happy with the way things are, they don't want to hear why it's the other guy's fault. They want to hear what each side plans to do to make things better. That's a debate congressional Republicans don't want to have because it's one Democrats can win.

In 1994, Democrats made the mistake of trying to stop the Gingrich wave by scaring voters about the drastic changes Republicans were proposing in the Contract With America. All voters heard was that Republicans were for change and we were against it. This time around, Republicans are the ones without a compelling change agenda.

In the long run, the best way to keep the political retirement bug from spreading is to keep making progress on the nation's real problems, from jobs and economic growth to educational opportunity and the national debt. When unemployment is 10 percent, incumbency is the one job nobody wants.

AP Video: Chris Dodd Won't Seek Re-Election

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.

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