By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Arlen Specter, an 80-year-old Senate warhorse, is facing a tough Tuesday tomorrow when he and Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak go head to head in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary. Most likely, he will lose, and that will be a good thing--he was on the wrong side of too many showdowns, and besides, his time is past.
Specter, a recently converted Democrat, ran and won five times as a Republican senator--meaning that he took his seat 30 years ago in 1980. This is surely the political horse race to watch, but not only because of the strange specter of switching parties mid-stream.
For me, the struggle is generational. At 58, Sestak is a youngster compared to Specter, though the congressman is a retired Navy rear admiral. In fact, he is one full generation younger than the tough-as-nails Specter. Utah Republican Robert Bennett, 76, just lost in his state primary to a younger candidate. John McCain, the Arizona senator also in his 70s, is up against an aggressive younger challenger and former Republican congressman, J.D. Hayworth.
What's curious to me is how fiercely these old warhorses still wish to win--and how reluctant they are to let go of the reins of power.
A W.B. Yeats poem begins with a lament that Byzantium is "no country for old men." Through this glass, it becomes clear the U.S. Senate remains a country for old men, even though the nation needs younger men and women to come to Washington to represent us. According to the Senate historian's office, 63 is the median age of the 100 senators. There are no senators in their 40s, none whatsoever since Barack Obama of Illinois became president in 2009.
Not for nothing was the Senate once nicknamed "The Plantation" in years past when the old Southern "bulls" ruled the committee chairmanships. Richard Russell was the archetype of that. Now a handful are in their 80s, including Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat and World War II-vintage hero who is running for re-election.
Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, 70, is running a hard race for re-election in Nevada. The oldest senator of all is 92, Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the historical memory of the institution.
The Senate is one of the only places where you can feel like a young whipper-snapper at 60. Vice President Joe Biden came in at 30 as a Delaware Democrat and found it a wonderful place to age gracefully, leaving at 67.
It's important the American people realize just how much the lofty Senate side of Capitol Hill resembles a country club for old men. There are 16 women and 1 African-American man in this elite enclave.
On matters of substance, the Senate was slow as summer molasses to act on healthcare reform. On other important issues, they are quick with the threat of a filibuster or a cloture motion to cut off debate with a minority of 40 or 41 Republicans. In other words, President Obama is moving his agenda without a lot of help or advice from the old-fashioned Senate, which is often an obstruction to progress.
Don't get me wrong. I love the Senate and respect its accumulated wisdom over the years. Some of my favorite senators are the older ones in their 70s--and Byrd, too, for his vast sea of scholarship on the Roman Senate, the U.S. Senate and how beautifully he can recite one of the greatest speeches ever given on the Senate floor--by Aaron Burr, (of all people) stating that if democracy ever died, it would be on that floor.
But there comes a time for the those in the oldest generation to realize when they have served the country long enough. That is part of keeping democracy healthy, engaged and current. Arlen Specter, your time has come.