Matt Bai, chief political correspondent for the New York Times Sunday magazine, met up in Omaha with former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a moderate Democrat who ran for president in 1992 and is running again for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska.
In his last magazine appearance, Bai typically took the Democrats's side of the debt showdown debate of summer 2011. In Sunday's profile, Bai fawned over Kerrey as "a statesmanlike and contemplative presence" of "great moral complexity" who was adept in "thinking philosophically and reflectively rather than reflexively" about politics.
When Bob Kerrey left the Senate after two terms in 2001 -- mainly, he says now, so he could remarry and start a new family away from politics -- he was considered a statesmanlike and contemplative presence in a city that still valued both qualities. Kerrey had been a serious presidential candidate, a respected voice on health care and intelligence and co-chairman of one of those bipartisan commissions to reform entitlement programs. His closest friends included the small crowd of Vietnam veterans from both parties -- John McCain, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Chuck Robb, Max Cleland -- for whom party loyalty seemed well down the list of daily concerns.
Of that group, only the two failed presidential nominees remain, and McCain, once a symbol of independence, seems like a changed man, seething with partisan bitterness. A half-dozen of the Senate’s other remaining centrists -- including Ben Nelson, the Democrat who took the Nebraska seat Kerrey vacated in 2001 -- are leaving voluntarily at the beginning of next year, and another, Richard Lugar, was just kicked to the curb in a divisive primary after 36 years of service. On the issues Kerrey says he cares most about, namely entitlements and debt reduction, efforts to find some bipartisan accord have gone nowhere, and those senators who try hardest to bridge the divide seem increasingly beaten down.
Bai was pretty confident that Kerrey could out-debate Deb Fischer, Kerrey's Republican opponent currently leading the former senator by double digits in polls:
Also, while Fischer may appeal to Tea Party types as a conservative insurgent, she is relatively untested and entirely new to national issues, which means Kerrey is not the only one who has something to fear from the twittering masses. I mentioned in passing to Kerrey, as we walked on a tarmac, that I wouldn’t want to be a state senator debating him on the intricacies of Medicare and terrorism. “Neither would I,” he flatly replied.
This was amusing, however:
Although he favors raising taxes on the rich, while also lowering some corporate rates, Kerrey disdains the current populist rhetoric that pervades the left and praises the generosity of the rich. “My view is that the jerks in our society are evenly divided among all income categories,” he said. “I think it’s important for rich people, especially on the Democratic side, to hear someone say thank you.” I found myself wishing someone would give Bob Kerrey a speaking slot at the Democratic convention, just so I could experience a packed arena going dead quiet.
Bai has an allergy to labeling Democrats as liberals, but can find conservatives on the Republican side, while welcoming the fact that the "Tea Party fervor that gripped Congress" may be ebbing.
Nowhere is the resistance to old-school compromise more glaring than in the case of the so-called Gang of Six, which includes a member of the Democratic leadership (Richard Durbin) and one of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans (Tom Coburn). The gang has a rough framework for reducing the debt by something like $4 trillion, both by cutting entitlement spending and by rewriting the tax code; it’s not fully worked out, but it’s enough to serve as a rallying point for the center. More than a dozen Republican senators were initially supportive of the plan, but when Obama embraced it and conservatives like Rush Limbaugh erupted, virtually all of them backed away. Democrats have been more open to making some painful trade-offs, but even so, the party’s top senators have been mostly hostile to the gang’s work, and only four Democrats have tentatively joined.
A few Democratic senators I spoke with expressed hope that, despite Lugar’s defeat in Indiana, the Tea Party fervor that gripped Congress last year was ebbing, which would give Republicans more room to negotiate on cuts and taxes. In recent weeks, the two sides have come together to support measures on such issues as extending the Export-Import Bank and streamlining drug approvals. “There has been a shift,” New York’s Charles E. Schumer told me. “Is it on the most pressing issues of the moment, like debt and taxes? No. But it’s not post-office namings, either.”
And if it turns out that more senators are willing to challenge their own parties’ orthodoxies in the year ahead, then what a re-emerging center of the Senate will most likely need, even more than an expanded quorum or a specific agenda, is leadership -- an elder statesman with national standing to play something like the role McCain played in the early part of the last decade, someone who can threaten to “shut things down” and be taken seriously. “Bob is, in the most constructive sense, an iconoclast,” Michael Bennet, Colorado’s junior senator and a friend of Kerrey’s, told me. “He would instantly be a leader of people who want to pull this place back together again.”
Bai again praised Kerrey's "statesmanlike" standing in a TimesCast clip posted last week in anticipation of this profile. Around the nine-minute Mark Bai talked about Kerrey bolstering the "compromise-oriented center in the Senate": "I think what Kerrey would bring to this and maybe the reason he's entitled to some optimism around these issues, is that he is a national figure with real standing. He has a track record on these issues. He's not going to back down, he doesn't really care what people think, he's not looking to be president anymore. And I think he would instantly if nothing else become a real statesmanlike leader for that contingent in the Senate and I think they badly need one."
After talking about Kerrey feeling guilt over a massacre in Vietnam, Bai praised how the former senator thought about things with "great moral complexity." Around the eleven-minute mark: "Look, that's what makes Bob Kerrey interesting to me and other people. It's what made that generation of politicians interesting it is to some extent what we miss are people you know thinking philosophically and reflectively rather than reflexively about the political environment, and it's that kind of sentiment and wrestling with issues and wrestling with morality that I think spurs the best in politics and it's one of the things he'll bring to this race win or lose that I think people will appreciate."