Political Animal


December 27, 2011 2:05 PM Ben Nelson to retire

By Steve Benen

Democratic leaders from the White House and Capitol Hill pleaded with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), asking him to run for re-election for one main reason: the party is desperate to keep its Senate majority and it has no one else to run in Nebraska.

As is often the case, Nelson is letting his party down.

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska will announce today that he is retiring after two terms, a serious blow to Democratic efforts to hold onto their majority in the chamber next November.

Nelson is scheduled to hold a press conference back home in Nebraska as early as today to make his decision official, said several Democratic insiders close to the leadership.

The 70-year-old Nelson was considered one of the most endangered Democratic incumbents this cycle. GOP-affiliated outside groups have already dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into TV ads bashing Nelson, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent over $1 million on their own ad blitz to bolster his image.

That last part is of particular interest. Remember, Nelson waited until after Democratic and allied groups had invested quite a bit of money to strengthen his standing in Nebraska, and then decided to retire.

Also note, Nelson has voted with the right many times over the last couple of years — even on filibusters — offering Republicans cover on a wide range of issues. When pressed, Nelson would often tell his Democratic allies the votes were necessary to bolster his re-election bid. Now that he’s leaving, Nelson’s votes with Republicans appear to have no value at all.

That said, Nelson’s record wasn’t all bad. In 2009, after nearly balking many times, he stuck with his party on the Affordable Care Act and the Recovery Act. Those proved critical, and both measures would have failed without his vote. As exasperating as Nelson has been, he never drifted so far to the right that he was more conservative than Republicans.

In any case, what happens now? The Republican race appears to be coming down to state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg, both of whom are competing to appear more unhinged than the other. There isn’t much of a Democratic bench in Nebraska, though former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D), who retired 11 years ago, has reportedly expressed interest in a possible comeback.

There’s also former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who became an Obama ally and critic of the Republican Party, despite being a conservative.

While this sorts itself out, here’s a bottom line to remember: Ben Nelson just made it much tougher for Democrats to maintain a Senate majority in 2013.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Burr Deming on December 27, 2011 2:13 PM:

    I dunno. The most critical issue to most families has been jobs. And Ben Nelson consistently held to Herbert Hoover ideology, even to the extent of constantly repeating Hoover's most famous talking point.

  • stevio on December 27, 2011 2:15 PM:

    I guess I understand your observation, Steve, about that majority situation and all...but Nelson was a dork. Plain and simple. He had the ability to unhinge many an initiative and for that he will not be missed. let's hope Hagel or Kerrey gives it a go...

  • Doctor Whom on December 27, 2011 2:17 PM:

    Wonder if Nelson got some irrecoverably bad news from his internal polls?

    Still, though, this is kind of crappy of him to do.

  • zeitgeist on December 27, 2011 2:19 PM:

    Ben Nelson just made it much tougher for Democrats to maintain a Senate majority in 2013

    Only in the most marginal sense (mainly due to the waste of finite party resources you discuss). He was going to lose if he ran, so dropping out doesn't impact the math. I suppose he could have actively helped the Dems by making this decision early enough for another candidate to get off to a good start.

    The main thing he did to make it tougher for Dems to maintain a Senate majority, however, was being Ben Nelson. And sadly, that isn't anything new or recent.

  • hells littlest angel on December 27, 2011 2:20 PM:

    Fuck Ben Nelson.

  • c u n d gulag on December 27, 2011 2:20 PM:

    Ah, DINO Ben Nelson, even when he's saying "Bayh" he feels the need to stab Democrats in the bank.

    Thanks, now bend over and pull down your drawers so that we can put your tinsel retirement Timex where it belongs, you @$$hole!
    But first, where are my surgical gloves?

    And please everyone, don't be insulted if I'm not exactly on the verge of orgasm with the thought of a Bob Kerrey comeback.
    He ain't a whole lot better than Nelson, and maybe worse.
    At this point, I think Chuck Hagel might make a better candidate than Ol' Bob.

    What the hell ever happened to the "50 State" strategy?

    Why don't we have someone ready besides maybe pulling Kerrey out of his well deserved mothballs?


    Oh well, we can always better spend the money in another state, now that we don't have to support Benedict 'Arnold' Nelson.

  • Danp on December 27, 2011 2:22 PM:

    Who's more influential in Nebraska? Ben Nelson or Larry the Cable Guy?

  • joejoejoe on December 27, 2011 2:24 PM:

    Run Chuck Hagel as an I or a D and move forward. That Nebraska provision in the health care bill was ridiculous and made all Democrats look ridiculous. If your contribution to the party is cutting deals that makes people think the worst about government and your party believes government can promote the general welfare of citizens, you do more harm than good no matter what the record of your roll call looks like.

    If there is no Ben Nelson maybe the White House sweetens the pot enough to flip Olympia Snowe or Dick Lugar to I. It's not a zero sum game.

  • stormskies on December 27, 2011 2:26 PM:

    This is the shit stain Senator who broke the tie in the Senate when Bush proposed his tax cuts for the rich .. this is the shit stain that did that ........

  • martin on December 27, 2011 2:31 PM:

    Bye Bye Ben. You will be missed as much as Lieberman

  • sue on December 27, 2011 2:31 PM:

    write to him demanding that he repay the $$$ to the DSCC-it's the least he can do.

    I already did

  • joejoejoe on December 27, 2011 2:35 PM:

    To make a related point, the White House poached top candidates in Kansas (Sebelius) and Arizona (Napolitano) when they came into office. You either think about this stuff all time or you govern the best you can and show some faith in democracy.

    If the fate of the Democratic agenda hinges on the decision of a 70 year old mediocrity like Ben Nelson sticking around, the agenda isn't worth a damn in the first place.

  • Peter C on December 27, 2011 2:40 PM:

    I'm glad to see him go. He did as much harm as good (or more).

    I don't think that 2012 will be a particularly good year for establishment candidates. I hope that Nebraska can find a good one instead.

  • Sadie on December 27, 2011 2:41 PM:

    Like Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller, Ben will be missed. It will be more difficult now for Republicans to call their most unhelpful views "bipartisan".

  • kindness on December 27, 2011 2:47 PM:

    Nelson = Blanche Lincoln. Screw the bastard.

  • r on December 27, 2011 2:51 PM:

    F Ben Nelson, the POS.

  • square1 on December 27, 2011 2:52 PM:

    Good riddance. The guy was effectively a Republican. You can't filibuster your own party and keep my respect.

    The Senate isn't the House. As long as there is a filibuster, as long as neither party achieves a 60-vote majority, it is largely irrelevant which party is in the majority. If anything, this might prompt the Democrats to choose a less sucky leader than Reid (unfortunately, they would still have to choose from the pool of Senators).

  • N.Wells on December 27, 2011 3:02 PM:

    "it is largely irrelevant which party is in the majority"
    Sometimes you have insight. However, there are a lot of other times, like this one. The party in control gets to set the agenda, head committees, launch or squash investigations, dole out pork, have much more influence on judicial nominations, set the senate rules, etc. You might not care for the outcomes, but they are MUCH worse whenever republicans are in control.

  • FlipYrWhig on December 27, 2011 3:04 PM:

    What's denim-clad DailyKos heartthrob Scott Kleeb doing lately?

  • Trollopoly on December 27, 2011 3:27 PM:

    It's about time. Miserable piece of shit! Now he can gloss nostalgic all over memory lane and pine for the days when he did so much good as a Senator! I feel like a fucking Rockwell painting and my eyes are tearing up! Sorry, but Ben Nelson has been insuring a Republican Senate Majority for his entire Senate career, WTF? This is one douchebag that nobody and I mean NOBODY will ever miss!

  • Peter C on December 27, 2011 3:33 PM:

    Sorry N.Wells, but those goodies are not worth keeping a Senator who joins a filibuster against his own party. Those powers and percs strengthen the 'Democratic Machine', but I'm not very happy with the machine; it fosters corruption rather than good governance.

    Nelson was a perpetual propaganda gift for the GOP that they exploited to the hilt.

  • square1 on December 27, 2011 3:42 PM:

    @N.Wells: There is a very big difference between how the Senate and the House functions. In the House, the minority party might as well not show up. In the Senate, the minority still exerts considerable control over Senate business. I'm not saying that there is no difference between being in the majority and being in the minority. I'm saying that the difference is so slight that I don't give a damn.

    Yeah, they'll be some committees with 1 less Ben Nelson and 1 more Republican. Yawn.

  • SW on December 27, 2011 3:51 PM:

    Now who's going to chew his food and tie his shoes?

  • square1 on December 27, 2011 3:53 PM:

    FWIW, I never bought into the idea that Senators like Nelson and Lieberman were truly rogues. It was always clear to me that they were engaged in a good cop-bad cop dynamic with the party leaders in order to pretend that the party leaders were forced into passing more conserative legislation than the party base supported. Trust me, a President doesn't allow random Senators to join the opposition party in shooting down signature pieces of legislation without repercussions.

    But for those who don't agree with me, and who honestly thought that the Democratic leaders were dealing in good faith and just trying to help Nelson get re-elected...can they all apologize now and admit that every single time over the past 3 years that Democrats "compromised" in order to craft legislation that Nelson could vote for was a complete waste?

    Arguably, the Dems lost the House in 2010 because the party watered down HCR and refused to put popular legislative proposals, like extensions of unemployment, extensions of middle class tax cuts, and additional stimulus spending up for votes in September of 2010? At the time, we were told the Blue Dog Senators didn't want to take votes that could cost them re-election. Lo and behold, after Dems lose the House, Nelson decides to retire.

  • SW on December 27, 2011 3:59 PM:

    Just think about this moment. Everyone has been urging progressives to cut Nelson slack. He is from a Red State they say. He has to be this conservative they say. His constituents will murder him they say. He has no choice.

    So, now that it looks like he might loose despite sucking right wing ass for the past twelve years he just bails.

    In particular, he has spent the last two years torpedoing damn near everything that the Democrats have tried to do. He has sided with the opposition filibustering his own party's bills refusing to let them even be debated upon. And for what? The fucking coward isn't even going to stand for re-election. So he did all of that not for fear of what the voters were going to do in the fall but simply because he is a monumental dick.

  • chi res on December 27, 2011 4:28 PM:

    he is a monumental dick

    Can't disagree with that. But does anyone honestly think there's going to be a Nebraska republican who won't be worse?

  • Mark on December 27, 2011 4:29 PM:

    Steve, your first sentence said it all: The White House pleaded with a Sen. who they should have known would screw them over.

    Sen Nelson should have been the first casualty in 2010 after screwing over the Dems on health care, but he was Rahm's perfect Dem.

  • square1 on December 27, 2011 4:34 PM:

    Come on, SW, this was never about his constituents.

    Small-state Senators tend to be shameless corporate whores because, relatively speaking, it takes less money to buy them off. A Senator from NY or CA is going to have many, powerful in-state constituencies that he or she must appease before appeasing an out-of state donor. But an insurance industry lobby can go to a relatively unpopulated state like Nebraska or Montana and buy up a Baucus or a Nelson tout de suite.

    When Nelson says "It is time to move on." What he is really saying is "It is time to get paid."

    And don't think that the rest of the party doesn't get how this works. This is why you will read quotes about the administration trying to convince Nelson to stay on. What you won't read is angry quotes from administration insiders pissed off that Nelson -- or any other Blue Dog -- sold out the party. That's because they aren't pissed off at Nelson. They are all just playing their roles.

  • tko on December 27, 2011 4:43 PM:

    One less blue dog! Wow, that will make a big difference. It doesn't really matter because there is something wrong merely by the fact that it takes 60 f**king votes to pass anything and they don't ever appear to be serious about changing that. That's both parties.

  • MNRD on December 27, 2011 6:16 PM:

    Here's my bottom line: Having a "big tent" is a good thing - but allowing Benedict Arnold into that tent is a very very bad idea.

  • N.Wells on December 27, 2011 6:29 PM:

    Peter C: "those goodies are not worth keeping a Senator who joins a filibuster against his own party."
    Square1: "Yeah, they'll be some committees with 1 less Ben Nelson and 1 more Republican. Yawn."
    Both of those comments are wrong-headed. If the Dems lose their majority, all the committees will have Republican chairs and republican majorities, and those can do serious damage. A blue dog dem holding a seat that would otherwise go to a Republican and who otherwise permits a Democratic majority is a good thing, even if it is below a supermajority, for all the attendant frustrations. For all of the annoyance of dealing with Southern Democrats in the sixties and seventies, they gave the democrats a solid workable majority (I know, different standards about majorities and filibusters and voting against cloture). The solution is electing more democrats, so that the party can afford some defections on key votes. Replace the less progressive Democrats with more progressive ones when you can, but keep the blue dogs when you don't have an alternative, convert R seats to D at every opportunity, and pressure the blue dogs to vote our way as much as possible. A large enough voting block pulls a party and its president back to its center or beyond, rather than giving outsize influence to its potentially defecting centrists.

    (I just clicked through 15 captchas to get one that looked readable. This is getting annoying.)

  • Doug on December 27, 2011 7:05 PM:

    Thank you for the very valuable lesson in practical poltics, N.Wells. I doubt it will sink in, but we have to keep trying.
    It's what progressives do...

  • chrome agnomen on December 27, 2011 8:10 PM:

    now please DIAF, nelson. sincerely, a liberal.

  • T2 on December 27, 2011 9:24 PM:

    Nelson is a Republican. Screw him.

  • Squeaky McCrinkle on December 28, 2011 2:56 AM:

    What's bad about getting rid of a dickhead like this? From what I've read here and elsewhere, this prick was, as T2 remindsd me, a Republican. Let's face it, a decent Republican could well be an improvement on a craven faux-Democrat like Nelson.

  • Michael on December 28, 2011 3:44 AM:

    I understand the anger and hate at Nelson, but Nwells reasoning is precise.Speaker Reid is so much preferable , than speaker Mconnell, and if that happens , you will wish for pretend democrats at a minimum in his place.His first statement will be , this president will not have a drop of success this term, or else, Ron Paul or romney has our 100 percent support and I will deliver every vote, once they sign my Norquist pledge...cene

  • bandit on December 28, 2011 9:49 AM:

    The 70-year-old Nelson

    Time to go

  • MNRD on December 28, 2011 1:10 PM:

    It's important to look at the whole picture. For the first two years of the Obama Presidency it unquestionably helped in a number of crucial legislative battles to have the votes of the Ben Nelsons. The question is, how many Democratic seats did we lose in 2010 because of the damage that the Ben Nelsons did to the Democratic brand and the boost that the Ben Nelsons gave to the Republican brand? To what extent was the third year of the Obama Presidency stifled legislatively by the behavior of the Ben Nelsons during the first two years?

    Can a Party whose entire governing philosophy revolves around the importance of good governance to societal well-being afford to tolerate a Party culture that makes it appear as though that Party governs badly? My answer is "No".