The runoff between incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss and Democratic contender Jim Martin takes place this Tuesday. Barack Obama has avoided appearing in Georgia on behalf of Martin. Turnout is always a challenge in a runoff election. Obama’s appearance would obviously lend significant assistance to the contender. Why has he avoided Georgia?
It’s a puzzling question. The sagacious Michael Barone speculates that Obama does not yet want to risk his political capital and suggests that Democrats are ambivalent about the prospect of achieving a filibuster-proof Senate majority:
Bill Clinton’s campaigning for incumbent Wyche Fowler in the 1992 runoff didn’t help Clinton’s prestige but rather signaled something in the way of political weakness, because Republican challenger Paul Coverdell won. I’m guessing that Obama wants to avoid a repeat of this outcome. And I’m guessing, with some basis, that at least some incumbent Democratic senators would rather not have 59 Democratic colleagues, lest they be put on the record for imposing policies like the abolition of secret ballots in union recognition elections.
Writing on the Chambliss-Martin race for the only Atlanta-area paper with a conservative editorial line, Oglethorpe University Professor Joseph Knippenberg speculates that Obama may calculate that his strength as president would be enhanced if Senate Democrats are short of a filibuster-proof majority:
Stated simply, the more votes Democrats have in the Senate, the more powerful the congressional party is and the less leverage the president has to move them in directions that he wants. Rather than lead his party, President Obama may have to follow congressional majorities intent on agenda items that may not be at the top of his to-do list or on policies that do not jibe with the post-partisan posture he has been striking.
If, on the other hand, Harry Reid needs to find one or two votes to head off a threatened Republican filibuster, the president is in the driver’s seat. He can rise above party and work across the aisle to woo and win a couple of Republicans – Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe come to mind. When, moreover, President Obama finds that he has to say “no” to the demands of congressional Democrats, it would not be in his own name, but rather on account of the need to pry loose a few votes from the other side. What better way to be “above party” without losing the confidence of his fellow partisans? What better way to be in a position to call the shots?
I’ve almost convinced myself that President-elect Obama shouldn’t campaign on behalf of Jim Martin, if he knows what’s good for himself and his administration. Indeed, if he could, he should film a commercial for Saxby Chambliss, the last barrier between him and an agenda driven by the demands of congressional Democrats.
Knippenberg concludes on a magnanimous note: “[T]empted as I might be to vote for Jim Martin to bring out the worst in the Democratic Party, I’m going to support my new president and put country above party by marking my ballot for Saxby Chambliss.”
UPDATE: Today’s Washington Times reports that “Obama lends his voice to Senate runoff.”
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