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Mandatory retirment for Senators is beginning to look a lot better

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, January 10, 2010 15:49 EDT
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Between this Harry Reid scandal and months of watching fools like Ben Nelson carry on like shaming “girls in trouble” like it’s 1955 is an acceptable thing to do, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that one reason the leadership of the Democratic party is way more conservative than the actual citizens who vote them in is simply that the old white man-ness of the Democratic leadership is becoming a serious problem. Not that all old white men are completely out of touch and living in a bubble of privilege that prevents them from realizing or accepting that the world has changed dramatically since their youth—you see men like Ted Kennedy, and you realize open-mindedness is possible. But still, it’s clearly not going to happen in many, probably most cases. We need more fresh blood cycling into the Senate, to inject more of a relationship to the outside world into their thinking and decision-making. But how to do this?

I’m hesitant to suggest term limits. I think they’re a bad idea for a lot of reasons, starting with the fact that the existence of senior politicians is often a good thing—experience and stature helps them get things done. While we were talking about this last night, Marc also pointed out to me that term limits encourage corruption by encouraging the Dick Cheney-style revolving door between holding office and working for corporations.

So I’m reluctantly forced to conclude that the Senate needs to seriously consider setting a mandatory retirement age, probably around 65. I think this would go a long way towards fixing some of the problems that we have the with Senate, particularly their resistance to change and the ongoing problem of Democratic incumbents who act like they’re living in the 1950s, even as their voting base wants them to move us into the 21st century. I say that I’m reluctant, because there are a lot of older politicians like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd who have demonstrated a flexibility and a willingness to look forward, and I’d like to selfishly keep folks like that around. I don’t think age inherently makes people more conservative in any way. What I do think is that being in the Senate, however, encourages people to get stuck in their ways, and when their ways are decades past, this can be a serious problem, as Harry Reid’s racist remarks and Ben Nelson’s over the top sexism demonstrate. And if we lose good people like Kennedy and Byrd with a mandatory retirement age, I think it’ll be worth it to edge out people like Reid and Nelson.

But even examples like Byrd and Kennedy show why encouraging a culture where politicians hang onto their seats until they die is a problem. Kennedy’s tragic death at age 77 left a hole in the Senate that could have very well led to the tanking of health care reform. I’d argue that his loss is probably a big reason the Senate passed such a weak bill, because he wasn’t there to fight for the left. Robert Byrd’s ill health continues to be a threat to the bill, one that Republicans are willing to exploit in both praying for his passing and in using procedural nonsense in an effort to make him too sick (or worse, dead) to vote. It’s true that any of us can be stricken with ill health or death at any time, but the possibility of this goes up exponentially after you’re 65 years old.

What if, instead of encouraging politicians to hang onto their seats as long as humanly possible, we created an incentive for politicians to groom and root for their successors? One reason we’re all so scared to see someone like Ted Kennedy or Robert Byrd leave office is we’re afraid of who will take their place, but I think if these politicians were looking forward to retirement instead of waiting for death, that might not be so. They would have much more of a reason to groom someone suitable for their seat, and help get them elected while they still had the energy to do so. We could both get better turnover in the Senate while also making sure the voters aren’t left without reliable candidates to vote for under a mandatory retirement system.

I know that the argument for why conservative Democrats get elected is that they’re from conservative districts. And I don’t disagree with that. But the recent months have shown that mere conservatism doesn’t really account for how wildly out of touch Senators like Ben Nelson (age 68) and Harry Reid (age 70) are. I really do think it’s because they’ve lived in that bubble way too long, and the possibility that they’re going to wake up is slim indeed. Which is why most people aren’t happy with Reid’s apology. To quote Matt on this subject:

It’s good that Reid apologized, but at the same time you can’t really apologize for being the sort of person who’d be inclined to use the phrase “negro dialect” and it’s more the idea of Reid being that kind of person that’s creepy here than anything else.

That kind of thing is and probably should be a giant red flag that someone is terminally out of touch. And I say this as someone who’s come around to respecting Reid a lot more than I used to, because he put up more of a fight than I expected for health care reform. It’s clear that he has to go, and unfortunately now the only way that’s going to happen is by a Republican beating him in the election. While his seat is one that would probably be in danger if he simply retired years ago, I’m also forced to point out that his hanging on for dear life has effectively blocked any chance of another Democrat—one who doesn’t say things like “negro dialect”—taking the seat.

Which brings me to my second argument, which is that mandatory retirement would help diversify the leadership in the Democratic party. When you’re looking at the people over a certain age in the Senate, the vast majority are going to be white guys, because that’s the only group that had a good shot at getting elected when they were starting out in politics. Cycling more young people in more frequently would help cycle in more women and people of color. Certainly, the male dominance of the Senate had a huge influence on the abortion debate, especially when you consider how many Senators felt free to discuss women in terms that implied that women are functionally no smarter than beets, and have no more moral character on average than rocks. The mere presence of more women in the Senate would do a lot to change that, but women are going to have trouble getting more seats if there’s some seats that aren’t going to come up until the seat holders die. I’d argue that the same dynamics are in play when it comes to racist assumptions that Senators like Reid clearly feel free to hold, because they don’t get challenged much. The lack of fresh blood cycling into the Senate just makes it harder for people of color to get into the Senate.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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