Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Were Old Senates Better?

Here's Tom Schaller over at FiveThirtyEight:
Alabama’s John Sparkman; Arizona’s Barry Goldwater and Carl Hayden; Arkansas’ J. William Fulbright; Connecticut’s Abe Ribicoff and Thomas Dodd; Georgia’s Richard Russell; Idaho’s Frank F. Church; Illinois’ Everett Dirksen; Indiana’s Birch Bayh; Louisiana’s Russell Long; Maine’s Edmund Muskie and Margaret Chase Smith; Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy (and later, Walter Mondale, who filled Humphrey’s seat at the end of that Congress); Mississippi’s John Stennis; Montana’s Michael J. Mansfield; Nebraska’s Roman Hruska; New York’s Jacob Javits; North Carolina’s Sam Ervin; Rhode Island’s Claiborne Pell; South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond; South Dakota’s George McGovern; Tennessee’s Al Gore Sr. and Estes Kefauver; Texas’ Ralph Yarborough and John Tower; Virginia’s Harry Byrd; Washington’s Scoop Jackson; West Virginia’s Robert Byrd; and Wisconsin’s William Proxmire.

Really? Humphrey, Fulbright, and Kennedy were certainly Senators who wound up as, well, in baseball they'd be inner circle Hall of Famers. Schaller makes much of the presidential and VP nominees here (he lists Sparkman, Goldwater, Humphrey, McGovern, Thurmond, H. Byrd, and should add Muskie to that list) but that hardly seems like an impressive crop to me. Let's see...1963 to 2009; I'll try 1986, halfway there. The 99th Senate included Goldwater, Biden, Quayle, Dole, Bentsen, Gore, and Kerry, plus Strom is still there, and also Eagleton. That's a much more impressive group of national nominees, I'd say -- it's three actual VPs, plus three real presidential nominations. 1963 had Gene McCarthy, who had a more important failed presidential campaign than 1986er Gary Hart, but then again 1986 had authentic American hero John Glenn. For Senate leadership, Dirksen, Mansfield and Byrd aren't nearly as impressive as Dole, Mitchell, McConnell, and Byrd again. Who else is there in 1986? Bill Bradley, Pete Dominici, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jesse Helms, Sam Nunn, and Phil Gramm are all notables. If Dodd '63 was notable for being a father, then Dodd '86 is notable for being a son. Pell, Long and Proxmire are still Senators in 1986. There are by my count twenty-three past or future presidential candidates -- that's right, over a fifth of the 99th Senate ran for president.

I know some people would argue that any Senate with Hubert Humphrey will rank higher in terms of talent than any Senate without him, and that's a fair point, but beyond that I'm not seeing big differences. Of course, it's very hard to assess more recent Congresses, because we don't know yet whether Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown, John Thune and Ben Cardin will wind up stars or forgotten, but I suspect that the 110th Senate (2006-2007) will wind up stacking up just fine in terms of star power, since Ted Kennedy's colleagues that time included Joe Biden, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.

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