Monday, November 13, 2006

The "Ben Nelson Moment" and the Future of the Nebraska Democratic Party

by Kyle Michaelis
To be honest, until the last week before the November 7th election, I never really thought the Democratic Party had much chance of winning control of the United States Senate. Doing the math and looking at the numbers, I could see an evenly-divided Senate wherein Vice-President Dick Cheney would have been the tie-breaking vote, but an outright majority just seemed like it would take more pieces falling into place than could possibly be relied upon.

Then, those pieces fell into place. And, now, the real work begins.

In Nebraska, we are faced with the particular question of what role our Democratic Senator, Ben Nelson, will play in the new majority.

The Omaha World-Herald reports:
After six years as a minority party senator from a small rural state, he's poised to become "Big Ben" on Capitol Hill.

Boosted by the Democrats' takeover of the U.S. Senate and his own landslide re-election, Nebraska's Ben Nelson almost certainly will see his influence rise as a centrist leader.

"It's the Ben Nelson moment," said Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

In Tuesday's elections, Democrats won control of the Senate with a razor-thin, 51-49, majority. Among the new Democratic senators headed to Washington are several who scratched out wins as moderates promising bipartisanship.

Nelson, a foe of abortion, friend of hunters and fan of tax cuts, has demonstrated how a Democrat can survive in a conservative state by working across Washington's party lines.

Next year, Wittmann said, Nelson and other centrists could be in a position to bless which bills the Senate will approve.

Nelson agreed. "We can become a force to help something to pass, or I suppose something not to pass."

He's already seeking meetings with new Senate Democrats James Webb of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

He will team up again with another veteran centrist, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who lost the Democratic nomination but won re-election running as an independent.

And he'll try to continue partnerships with Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

The goal, Nelson said, is for the centrists - always a loose-knit coalition - to see whether they want to pursue similar issues....

With both the House and Senate narrowly controlled by Democrats, "It's the moment for centrists," said Stephen Hess, a congressional expert at George Washington University....

While Nelson said he would like to see more bipartisan laws approved by the new Congress, he's not setting himself up as a power broker.

"It's much more about working to get things done," he said.

In any closely-divided Senate, Nelson's vote was poised to be a crucial one because of his willingness to cross party lines. Hopefully, that will be less of a problem as Democrats control the least, if Nelson's primary concern truly is "getting things done."

Still, as much as I would personally love if Nelson made a leftward shift, there's a lot to be said politically - particularly here in Nebraska - for Nelson staying true to the moderate-conservative record that won him re-election. Despite Nelson's popularity, Nebraska voters are still fundamentally wary of the Democratic Party and will take some warming up and winning over to Democratic leadership and the Democratic message in the coming years.

Looking to future Congressional and Senate races, the Nebraska Democratic Party is not wholly the master of its own fate. Nebraskans need to see a national Democratic agenda that speaks to their own values and interests. They need to see a Democratic Party they don't need to fear - and of which they might even want to be a part.

Clearly, Nebraska voters were not so afraid of a Democratic Congress that they would vote against Nelson on that basis alone. But, Nelson is a special case, and it will take a concerted effort by state and national leaders to win that same measure of acceptance for other candidates wearing the Democratic label.

Although regrettable on some points, Nelson's staying true to the record on which he was re-elected is essential to the continued progress of the Nebraska Democratic Party. Sure, he's locked-in for the next six years and may never face the voters again, but it's crucial that Nebraskans maintain their faith in Nelson's judgment and character - that he remains the Ben Nelson they have so long known and respected.

Beyond that, it really is imperative that Nelson take a more active hand in building the Nebraska Democratic Party. Great strides were made this year in building a statewide operation of which Democrats could be proud, and it's essential that idea survives, not only in terms of resources but also in Nelson's involvement.

As Governor and in his first term as a U.S. Senator, Nelson has, indeed, kept some measure of distance from party-building activities. Unless he wants his ultimate legacy in Nebraska politics to be the continued withering away of the Nebraska Democratic Party, he must step up to the plate in lending Democratic candidates and the party itself his credibility and support.

Nebraska Democrats rallied around Senator Nelson in 2006. If he gives a damn, he will return the favor in 2008 - not by changing his voting patterns or his stances on the issues to better conform with liberal orthodoxy but by helping recruit Democratic candidates and letting them know they'll have his support on the campaign trail.

As for the national political scene, I don't know if it's truly "the Ben Nelson moment" in Washington D.C. The fact that the much-maligned Democratic Leadership Council has declared it so doesn't carry a whole lot of water, even if the demonization of the DLC tends to be overstated. But, no doubt, if there is to be any progress during the last two years of the Bush Administration, it's going to fall on the moderates and the centrists to craft legislation acceptable to both Congress and the White House. If it's acceptable to Midwestern and Nebraska voters as well, then there's no reason the successes of 2006 can not carry-over and even build in 2008 and beyond.

Nelson is certainly well-positioned to exercise influence on Nebraska's behalf. Whether that also entails playing some hand in a make-shift centrist coalition remains to be seen, dependent on political and personal dynamics that won't come into view for months. The possibilities, though, are certainly intriguing - with new Senators perhaps looking to Nelson for guidance and some endangered Democratic Senators (i.e. Tim Johnson & Mary Landrieu) perhaps looking to Nelson's 2006 victory as a model for their own re-election campaigns.


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