Chris Dodd's Sinking Ship: Will He Bring Democrats Down With Him?

By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The Quinnipiac poll, whose home base is Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn., has a Connecticut poll out showing Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd's job approval at 33 percent positive to 58 percent negative. In pairings against three Republicans mentioned as 2010 opponents, he trails Rob Simmons 34-50 percent, Sam Caligiuri 37-41 percent, Tom Foley 35-43 percent. He is, as Connecticut-based Ironman put it, Dodd Man Walking. These are, to put it mildly, dreadful numbers for a politician in his 29th year as U.S. senator and 35th year as member of Congress.

Quinnipiac has been tracking Dodd's job approval rating for years, and the numbers tell an interesting story. Between the first poll taken in August 1994 (a terrible year for Democrats) and up through May 2007, his job approval rating never went below 56 percent and rose as high as 71 percent. His job disapproval rating in that period was always relatively low, between 17 percent and 31 percent (except for one poll where it was 34 percent). These numbers tell a story. A young man, son of a former senator, comes back from the Peace Corps in 1968, signs up in the Army Reserves and goes to law school, then in 1972 hangs out a shingle as a lawyer in his native eastern Connecticut, prime marginal political territory in those days. In 1974, the incumbent Republican congressman runs for governor. Connecticut has party conventions to nominate candidates and you need a certain percentage of the delegate votes or a certain number of signatures on petitions to get on the ballot if you don't lead at the convention. The young lawyer gets the nomination at the convention and no one else enters the primary. In a great Democratic year he wins the seat 60-40 percent.

The young congressman has a well-known name, is of the right party, is Catholic (as are most voters in the state at the time) and of Irish descent (never hurts); he has a congenial temperament and considerable charm, a ready sense of humor. He is re-elected easily in 1976 and 1978. In 1980, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff decides to retire at age 70 after three terms. Our young Chris Dodd seeks the seat and in intraparty maneuvering manages to prevent another 1974 freshman Democrat, Toby Moffett, from running. Dodd is nominated at the convention. In the general election he faces James Buckley, a fine man who was elected senator from New York in 1970 and defeated for re-election by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976. Buckley of course has genuine Connecticut roots, in the Buckley family manse in Sharon, but the fact that he had served as senator from another state is not the ideal credential. It is not a good Democratic year. Jimmy Carter wins only 39 percent of the vote in Connecticut. Ronald Reagan carries the state, but with only 48 percent of the vote. Jim Buckley runs 2 percent behind him, and Chris Dodd is elected to the first of his five terms in the Senate by a margin of 56-43 percent.

From there on in it looks easy. Connecticut is a more or less Democratic state, getting more Democratic in the 1990s and 2000s. A senator is not covered in gritty day-to-day detail like a governor by the local press. Dodd takes on a few causes in the Senate--opposing the Nicaraguan contras (which shores him up with the left-wing Democrats who never liked his strongly anticommunist father), sponsoring the family leave bill (a pretty innocuous thing which can be revived again and again until a Democratic president signs it in 1993), serving briefly as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He never gets strong opposition, because Connecticut leans Democratic and, despite its small size, is expensive to contest: You have to buy New York City and Providence TV as well as New Haven and Hartford, and the parties' Senate campaign committees prefer when given a choice to contest much less expensive states like South Dakota. Dodd is re-elected with 65 percent f the vote in 1986, 59 percent in 1992, 65 percent in 1998, 66 percent in 2004. None of these races is seriously contested. To win, Dodd just needs to run ads to remind people that he's a Democrat, he's a nice guy, he's backed nice things like family leave, and so on.

Dodd serves on the Banking Committee. Now in both the House and Senate the Banking committees (the title is Financial Services in the House) are not considered desirable assignments by most smart members. They lobby to get seats on House Ways and Means and Senate Finance instead. Over the years many of those who stay on Banking do so in order to curry favor with local bankers or networks of lobbyists: the kind of folks a talented member stays wary of. Plus, Banking handles a lot of arcane issues which are difficult to explain to ordinary voters. But the party leaderships usually are careful whom they send to Ways and Means and Finance. Chris Dodd stayed on Banking. And with the retirement of Paul Sarbanes in 2006 and the Democrats' capture of a majority in the Senate, suddenly in January 2007 Dodd is the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

Here is where he makes his major miscalculation. He evidently doesn't figure that this will be an in-the-bright-national-spotlight position. Who did? Certainly not me. Paul Sarbanes might have been identified by some insiders as the author of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, but he could walk down the streets of any major city in America except his hometown of Baltimore and go totally unrecognized. So Chris Dodd succumbed to the temptation that comes to many senators in their sixties. Like most senators, he had noticed that long-shot candidates like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had been elected president. Why not me? And he probably went through the exercise that a lot of Democratic politicians went through after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Let me make a list of reasons why I was not elected president in 1992. Reason one: I did not run for president in 1992. Reason two: There is no reason two. You're not likely to win if you run. But you're sure not to win if you don't run. And Chris Dodd, as chairman of the Banking Committee, could easily raise enough money to establish a campaign presence in Iowa. He turns 64 in 2008; it's probably his last chance. He's served longer in Congress than any president (though not quite as long as Joe Biden, who is also running for president on more or less the same theory). Why not go for it?

So in the year that a financial crisis is brewing, the chairman of the Senate committee that handles financial matters is off in Iowa running for president. Bad timing. In the fall he even moves his family there--something that is noted in Connecticut, where polls don't show a majority thinking he'd be a good president. His campaign predictably comes to nothing. Then he, as, let us say, not the most sophisticated analyst of the financial system in Congress, is shouldering vast responsibilities in the full glare of the national--and Connecticut--spotlight. Should we hand the secretary of the treasury $700 billion to, some way or other, bail out the banks? Well, hey, I guess so, yes. Should we limit the bonuses of executives of bailed out companies? Sure, but, hey, if you say so, let's not block any before February 2009.

Quinnipiac's numbers tell us what happened next:

Positive Negative Not sure
Apr 02, 2009 33 58 9
Mar 10, 2009 49 44 7
Feb 10, 2009 41 48 11
Dec 17, 2008 47 41 12
Jul 01, 2008 51 34 16
Mar 27, 2008 51 2821
Nov 08, 2007 55 31 15
May 10, 2007 60 26 14
Feb 19, 2007 60 25 15

Dodd becomes a victim of political leverage. When voters, most of them from your own party, know three or four good things about you and nobody tells them anything bad, your job approval looks pretty good. But when they learn thing five and thing six and thing seven about you, all important and all bad, they have huge leverage, and your job approval can plummet like a stone. (Notice how the "not sure" numbers decline, along with the positive job rating.) Things five and six and seven in this case being Dodd's "Friends of Angelo" mortgage from Countrywide, his cushy Irish cottage deal, his wife's connections with AIG.

This leaves Democrats in a bind. Dodd is extremely well positioned to lose his seat. Few incumbents with numbers like this survive. It's hard to think of a thing eight or thing nine which can turn them around. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has produced a TV spot (which they're probably not putting much money behind yet) attacking Dodd's best known announced opponent, former Congressman Rob Simmons, as a "special interest candidate." That's a pretty clear indication they have no idea what thing eight is. I'm sure that DSCC Chairman Bob Menendez and his extremely effective predecessor in the last two cycles, Charles Schumer, would like to see Dodd retire and run someone else, like Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose job approval is sky-high, in 2010. But Dodd will probably be hard to dislodge. It's not like he has another line of work. And if he's shoved aside in these circumstances he won't have much value as a lobbyist. Detailed command of the subject matter has never been his strength.

It's been suggested to me that President Obama could appoint him to a job in the administration. Recently former Connecticut Republican Congressman Chris Shays opted out of consideration for the job of Peace Corps director. Dodd loves the Peace Corps. It is a wonderful agency and the directorship is a really nice, though not top-level, job. Putting Dodd in the Peace Corps would be like doing a Torricelli--remember how incumbent Sen. Bob Torricelli was shoved aside in September 2002, when his job approval plummeted because of scandal, and the Democrats were allowed, despite the wording of state law, by a complaisant state Supreme Court to substitute Frank Lautenberg as a candidate. That saved a seat in a Democratic-leaning state (Lautenberg was re-elected in 2008, at 84). But doing a Torricelli here would be a little more risky. In that case, the spotlight was on only in New Jersey. In this case--removing at a time of financial crisis the chairman of the Banking Committee--the spotlight would be national. There is also the complication that Connecticut has a popular Republican governor, Jodi Rell. To hold the seat in the short term, the Democratic legislature would have to pass a law, presumably over Rell's veto, requiring that a vacancy could be filled only by special election. The same kind of law a Democratic legislature declined to pass in Illinois for fear a Republican would win the seat.

There is also the question of who would replace Dodd as Banking chairman. Next in line is Tim Johnson of South Dakota. He has recovered from a serious brain injury and he was re-elected by a wide margin in a Republican-leaning state in 2008. People in South Dakota know their senators personally; Johnson is a nice man whose sudden illness and then determined recovery undoubtedly evoked sympathy from most South Dakota voters. But is he the man whom Democrats want to present as leading the Senate on financial matters? Not clear. Next in line is Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate who has aken the lead more on military than on financial issues. A decent and solid guy, but not tailor-made for the role. And then next is Chuck Schumer, who knows the issues and the politics as well as anybody.

All of which brings to mind an old saying of mine. In politics, nothing is free, but there is some question as to when you pay the price.

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By Michael Barone