By Matthew Dallek, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
It's a tough time to be an incumbent with a long legislative record in the Congress. Opponents in party primaries castigate incumbents as corrupt insiders, who, it's said, are responsible for every problem from the Great Recession to the BP oil spill to the inability to stop illegal immigration into this country.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon embodies why the anti-incumbent zeal--though it's being hyped by a conflict-hungry media--is a misguided and ultimately destructive cultural force. Skepticism of Washington isn't necessarily a bad thing; the news media, watchdog agencies, and the public can and should serve as a responsible check on our elected officials.
But the raw anger trained on all long-term Washington politicians is worrisome, on several counts. Wyden, for example, is deeply knowledgeable about both politics and policy; while he's not in any apparent danger of losing this November, the thought of his defeat or the defeat of some other long-standing incumbents would be a loss of policy savvy and political know-how for the entire country. [See a slide show of 11 hot races in November.]
Wyden is eager to find principled compromises with Democrats and Republicans alike to move useful legislation through the U.S. Senate. He had an influential role in the healthcare debate, co-sponsoring legislation with now-defeated incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah. He has built an impressive record, in general. He has held large tobacco companies accountable, fought Medicare insurance fraud, and staunchly defended Oregon's wilderness areas and the nation's environment. He is now teaming up with Sen. Judd Gregg to enact bipartisan tax reform.
He has been in Congress for thirty years. In his case, that's not a bad thing. Elected to a House seat from Oregon's 3rd district in 1980, he stands for something larger than the politics of self-preservation: a strong liberal voice on consumer protections and promoting healthcare for all Americans, Wyden practices "principled bipartisanship" as desirable and attainable. Keynoting Wednesday's conference "Breaking the Stalemate: Renewing a Bipartisan Dialogue," which was co-sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center (bipartisanpolicy.org), the U.S. National Archives, and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, Wyden invoked Ted Kennedy's legacy. He lauded Kennedy as a liberal statesman, who fought as hard for his beliefs as any senator, but who also never stopped searching for honorable compromises that could make social progress on civil rights, education reform, healthcare, and a host of other key issues. [See a slide show of 5 key issues in the 2010 elections.]
Wyden embodies that Kennedy-esque legacy of blending pragmatism and principles, a can-do spirit with strong convictions. He defies the stereotype of the cozy Washington insider; measured, reflective, level-headed, he represents what's right--not what's gone wrong--with the nation's capital.