They might be giants, but Dana Milbank wouldn’t know

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank writes about “The missing giants” of the Senate and pronounces that there’s a “plague of legislatative dwarfism in the Senate.” This sort of column has been written, I suspect, since the “Great Triumvirate” (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun) left the scene 160 year ago.

Milbank being Milbank, his incarnation of the “where have all the giants gone” lament is largely a vehicle for attacking conservative Republicans. Orrin Hatch and John McCain might be giants, he concedes, but for the fact that McCain now acts consistently like a Republican and Hatch no longer pals around much with Democrats. To Milbank, this means they that Hatch and McCain have “stooped to joined the Lilliputians,” by which Milbank means Senators with whose ideology he disagrees.

Milbank thus betrays an ignorance of Senate history. Henry Clay, who receives the obligatory mention from Milbank, helped broker great compromises every 30 years or so. But his partisanship, and accompanying over-the-top rhetoric, during the Age of Jackson, would make Allen West blush. One of his attacks on Jackson and Martin Van Buren was so vicious that spectators believed the two would come to blows on the Senate floor (fortunately Van Buren was unflappable and his physical approach to Clay was solely for the purpose of asking for snuff). As for John Calhoun, also mentioned by Milbank, I doubt there has ever been as reckless, irresponsible, and uncompromising a partisan Senator of any serious note.

Milbank gives the game away when he discusses specific instances in which he believes voters have “traded down” in the Senate. The comparisons Milbank offers are inherently foolish because new Senators seldom will have the stature of veterans. Milbank’s approach is a bit like comparing the accomplishments of rookie athletes to those of long-time veterans who have retired.

Even so, did the voters of West Virginia really trade down when they selected Joe Manchin to fill Robert Byrd’s old seat? Bryd was a partisan windbag. Manchin, formerly a very popular governor, has an independent streak. But for Milbank, independence is only a plus if you’re a Republican.

Milbank also reaches way back to bemoan the fact that Jim DeMint (“of Tea Party fame,” Milbank informs us derisively) now holds Fritz Hollins’ old South Carolina seat. But from an objective historical perspective, this is a trade up. Hollins had some stature, but DeMint is the formidable leader of an important national faction. In this respect, he resembles past Senators who, though reviled in their day by people who hated their faction, are now considered giants. Examples include Calhoun, Barry Goldwater, and Robert La Follette (all cited by Milbank). If DeMint’s faction continues to rise, he could come to resemble giants like Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Taft, and Ted Kennedy.

What would an objective list of all-time Senate giants look like? I’ll take a stab at providing one in my next post.


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