To those who don't know Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the explanation he has given for deciding to retire sounds like a bad cliché for vulnerable politicians. He wants, the affable lawmaker said, to spend more time with his family.
In Nelson's case, however, that is actually true. And what makes the reasoning sad is that there was a time when Congress itself was something of a family, albeit a dysfunctional one. True, Nelson faced a tough re-election campaign, and well might have lost. But the Democrat's decision to move on is less a reflection of his own career uncertainties than it is the tragic certainty of an increasingly unfriendly work environment on Capitol Hill.
Nelson hasn't always pleased his fellow Democrats. He voted against his party when he felt it was appropriate—and given the fact that he represents a fairly conservative state, it would have been more questionable if he had obeyed party leadership ahead of his own constituents. He held out on critical votes, trying the get the best deal for his state. That's what senators do.
And Nelson's departure will give Republicans a huge boost in their ever-increasing chances of taking back the U.S. Senate. Democrats were taken by surprise by Nelson's decision, and don't—yet, anyway—have a strong contender to keep the seat. But even that potential prize is a cheap one. If Republicans retake the Senate majority, they will only face the same frustrations Nelson's own party now possesses. Anything a new GOP majority will try to pass will almost certainly fall to a filibuster threat by Democrats.
Nelson has always been a friendly presence on the Hill. He doesn't yell. He'd always stop and talk to reporters, even when he was being criticized by colleagues for holding out on the healthcare bill. He's a practical joker: When he and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton were being sworn into office in the Old Senate Chamber, Nelson tapped Clinton on the shoulder. "So Hillary, what Bible verse did you select to read for the swearing-in?" Nelson asked, drawing a brief look of horror from the notoriously well-prepared Clinton before she realized he was joking.
There is so little normal human interaction on Capitol Hill nowadays. It's no wonder Nelson and others are leaving it.