New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg died Monday due to complications from viral pneumonia. The 89 year old was the oldest member of the Senate and its last remaining Word War II veteran. He helped ban smoking on airplanes, wrote the domestic violence gun ban and cosponsored the Family and Medical Leave Act, among other legislative accomplishments.
Lautenberg had already announced he wouldn't run for re-election in 2014, and Gov. Chris Christie will appoint an interim replacement. The blogosphere reacted to his legacy and the political implications of his vacant seat:
David Hawkins of Roll Call called him an anchor of a "dwindling" group of Democrats in Congress who never sacrificed their ideals:
[T]he legislative legacy he leaves behind is one of the longer and more noticeable ones of the past three decades, replete with measures that continue to have a consumer-friendly and tangible effect on commerce, transportation, the environment and public health.
More than any other member of Congress, Lautenberg was responsible for the cultural turn against cigarettes in public spaces. A former two-pack-a-day smoker, he was the driving force behind the 1989 law that banned smoking on domestic airline flights, and he subsequently led the crusade to restrict smoking in most federal buildings. He was instrumental as well in the congressional moves to stop ocean dumping, to increase the legal age for drinking age to 21 and to tighten the standards of what constitutes drunken driving.
He was the principal author of one of the most recent tangible increases in federal gun control, the law enacted 16 years ago barring anyone convicted of domestic violence, including spousal or child abuse, from possessing a firearm.
The American Prospect's Paul Waldman said while it's "crass and cynical" to begin speculating on who will replace a senator after a death, that's the nature of politics. There will certainly be wider political implications for New Jersey and its Republican Gov. Chris Christie:
Christie would like to be president. I'm not saying he's definitely running in 2016, but he pretty obviously would like it, as would just about every governor and senator. But he knows that in order to get there, he's going to have to go through the party base, the same one that made Mitt Romney so miserable. He knows they'll be watching what he does now, which means it's a bad idea to appoint some moderate Republican squish like former governor Tom Kean. That leaves him with two real choices. He can find some rabid right-winger, which will please Republican primary voters but be condemned in the press as shameless pandering to those Republican primary voters. Or he can appoint someone no one has ever heard of to warm the chair for a few months, like Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick did when he named his former chief of staff, Mo Cowan, to fill John Kerry's seat when Kerry became Secretary of State. I'm guessing you haven't heard too much about Cowan since then. That seems like the most likely route for Christie to take.
Sean Sullivan of The Fix said Christie indeed faces a tough decision in deciding who to appoint to replace Lautenberg:
Of course, it's possible — though less likely — that Christie would appoint a Democrat to the seat. He is campaigning as a bipartisan governor in a very blue state, after all. Tapping a Democrat would be seen as a major stroke of bipartisanship. Replacing a Democrat with a Democrat and then saying the voters should decide what happens next in November would no doubt be very well received by Democrats and moderates.
But such a move would be politically perilous for Christie and would run the risk of angering Republicans, the last thing Christie needs if he has any designs on running for president in 2016. He has already stoked some concern among conservatives by embracing President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Jason Zengerle of The Daily Intelligencer noted that Christie didn't get along well with Lautenberg, and the senator's memory is going to continue causing problems for the blue state's governor:
With Lautenberg's death, Democrats are now suddenly paying attention to New Jersey again. His Senate seat will be filled in a special election, and whichever Democrat is running for it — be it Cory Booker or Frank Pallone or even Rush Holt — can expect a huge amount of state and national party support. It's inevitable that some of that support will spill over to Buono too. Will it be enough support for her to beat Christie? Probably not. But it could be sufficient to deny Christie the huge reelection margin he was counting on as a springboard to a 2016 presidential run.
What's more, Christie now has to pick a replacement for Lautenberg. This is something governors usually like to do, especially since that replacement would enjoy a huge advantage as an incumbent in the upcoming special election, but it will be a complicated choice for Christie. As a candidate for governor in a blue state, Christie has lately been casting himself as a uniter and a problem-solver, someone who's above petty partisan politics. In that vein, he might want to appoint a moderate Republican like State Senator Tom Kean Jr. or his longtime adviser Bill Palatucci. At the same time, national Republicans, some of whom are still angry at Christie for his post-Sandy embrace of Obama in the days before the 2012 presidential election, will want him to tap a more conservative replacement. As David Axelrod tweeted this morning, "Fascinating dilemma for Christie. Does he name interim who reflects his more moderate state, or feed Tea Party for '16?"
Lautenberg's passing also marks a significant generational shift in the Senate, said Chris Cillizza of The Fix:
[A]t most, twelve sitting Senators will be veterans when the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015. (There is, of course, the possibility that veterans will win races next fall and add to that number.)
The decline in service has obvious roots (the end of the military draft in the early 1970s) and huge impact on American policy making.
Sending American men and women to war is the most serious decision a Congress can make. Fewer and fewer people making those decision in the future will be able to speak from a position of experience and authority on the subject.
Ed Kilgore of Political Animal also noted the drastically different Senate Lautenberg joined in 1982:
Lautenberg entered a Senate that was very different from the one he departed at death: Howard Baker, the sort of Republican that would today be barred from office for chronic RINOism, was the Majority Leader. His last colleague from that era is Orrin Hatch, who beat down a Tea Party challenge last year; the next-to-last was Dick Lugar, who succumbed to another.
Despite his relatively advanced age, Lautenberg served three terms before "retiring" in 2000, and then managed to stay in the Senate for more than a decade after his comeback in 2002.
He was perhaps best known as one of the Senate's most unapologetic advocates for gun regulation, and he lived just long enough to see the issue revived as a major national preoccupation this year—and then shelved once again with the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill. But more than any other colleague, Lautenberg was in a position to understand the long arc of history and its unpredictable length, and his contributions will endure.
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