Chris Dodd's burdensome baggage



Way back in my youth, I interviewed a young Connecticut Democratic congressman named Chris Dodd; to be precise, the date was Aug. 22, 1979. Dodd at the time was anxious to leave the House and move up to the Senate. (A year later, he would successfully do so.) When we met that day in '79, he complained at length about the ponderous lawmaking process in the House, and shared his dream of greener pastures. Here's how he put it: "The Senate would seem to be easier, a little more manageable."

Well. I bet he has long since rid himself of that delusion.

Senator Dodd's rickety bid for re-election in 2010 is hugely complicated by the baggage he has accrued as a member of the Senate establishment. With populist anger sweeping the electorate (hello, A.I.G. bonuses), this is not the most opportune time for Dodd to be seeking another term - given the fact that in 2003 he got a sweetheart mortage deal from the notorious Countrywide Financial (a top sponsor of the subprime mortgages that helped land us in the soup); and that in 1994 he swung a deal for an Irish cottage with help from a real estate operator whose partner had just pleaded guilty to insider trading.

Connecticut's unofficial slogan is "The Land of Steady Habits," and it's well deserved, because the voters there tend to stick with their incumbents. They even signed up Joe Lieberman for another Senate term in 2006, despite the fact that he was widely reviled for his hawkish stance on Iraq and appeared to be affixed with a "Kick Me" sign on his butt. All things being equal, Chris Dodd, five-term senator and scion of a famous Connecticut political family, would be a cinch next year for a renewal of tenure.

Yet he is arguably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, and that could complicate his party's quest to attain a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority. (Dodd's vulnerability could cancel out the vulnerability of GOP Senate incumbent Jim Bunning, the cantankerous Kentuckian who last week told reporters that he had conducted a poll on his re-election prospects, and when the reporters asked him for the poll results, he barked, "None of your goddamn business.") Given Dodd's traditional popularity back home, and the state's deep blue tinge, it's startling to hear that 51 percent of Connecticut voters want him gone.

That's what the Quinnipiac pollsters reported back in January, and now they have a new one: In a matchup with a former three-term Connecticut Republican congressman named Rob Simmons, Dodd gets 42 percent - and loses to Simmons by a point. Whenever an incumbent is mired in the low 40s, it's a sign of big trouble....which is one big reason why Simmons announced on Sunday that he's in the race for real.

Simmons is good at raising money, he has a high name ID (owing partly to the fact that his eastern Connecticut district comprised almost half the state), and, yes, he did lose his House seat in the '06 tsunami that drowned so many congressional Republicans - but he lost by only 83 votes (you read that correctly), he connects well with blue-collar voters, and his House voting record was generally moderate (at least by contemporary Republican standards).

But because Simmons served during the first six years of the George W. Bush tenure, the Democrats will try to bind him tightly to the ex-president; in fact, that exercise began yesterday, when Senate Democratic campaign strategists put out a statement calling Simmons "a staunch defender of George Bush's failed economic policies." They also found this Simmons quote from March 25, 2004: "I am a big fan of the president's, and I am quite proud to be a Republican, and agree with him on many issues."

I wonder whether the "Bush baggage" line will work; by 2010, the shelf life of that tactic may well have expired. An election is typically a referendum on the incumbent, and Dodd, not Bush, will be the incumbent.

Dodd may well be called upon to further explain that deal with Countrywide; as a member of a special "V.I.P" program, he refinanced some properties with terms that were better than what the average person was offered. And it's not hard to guess why Dodd was deemed a V.I.P.; at the time, he was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, and Countrywide had donated $21,000 to his coffers since 1997. Dodd has said that he was unaware of any favorable, preferential treatment from Countrywide - a denial that he may be called upon to defend next year.

As for the Irish cottage story (examined at length here), the purchase itself seems perfectly legal. The potential political problem, however, is Dodd's long friendship with a millionaire named Edward Downe Jr., who engineered a big insider trading scam and later pleaded guilty. Dodd, who once bought a condo with Downe, later asked President Clinton to pardon Downe, and Clinton did so, on his final day in office. Again, nothing illegal about that. But, given the current public mood, that's the kind of material that can sink a senator.

And there's other thing. Dodd's ill-starred '08 presidential big ticked off people back home. He literally moved his family to Iowa for the caucus campaign (which made his home-state constituents feel somewhat neglected), and then he wound up tallying less than one percent on caucus night (which made him look like a loser). Meanwhile, because he spent so much of 2007 on the road campaigning, he wasn't able to take care of pressing business as the new Senate Banking Committee chairman.

And today, given our economic woes and the unpopularity of the various Wall Street bailouts, what senator would even want to be the Banking chairman and thus become the public face of bad news? As Dodd himself told Time magazine recently, "I don't find (any senators) trying to elbow me out of the way, trying to take over the jurisdiction of the Banking Committee."

The baggage of incumbency is often magnified during tough times, as are the entwining relationships between incumbents and special interests. For these reasons, Dodd will spend much of the next two years trying to fend off Simmons, as well as the GOP strategists who are seeking to fend off that 60-seat Senate Democratic majority. (Check out this new Republican ad.)

Which brings me back to my 1979 interview. At one point, young Dodd, fired up with idealism, told me that he wanted to get into the Senate and make the system work better: "There is a general public reaction that Congress is bogged down, that we're incapable of dealing with our problems, that special interests have absolutely tied up the Congress. To a large extent, that's correct."

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.