Add one more Democrat to the House of Representatives for the 110th Congress.
Seems like a gazillion years ago, but Obama was clobbered in the 2000 Democratic primary by Rep. Bobby Rush in Illinois' 1st District.
The last former vice president to return to Congress was Hubert Humphrey, who won a Minnesota Senate race in 1970.
And the last vice president to die in office was James Sherman (R) in 1912.
What Tom DeLay giveth, the Supreme Court taketh away.
My lisp notwithstanding, that is shorthand for what happened Tuesday in Texas' 23rd Congressional District, where a court-inspired runoff resulted in still another pickup for the Democrats. Rep. Henry Bonilla, a seven-term Republican, was upset by a former congressman, Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, 54-46 percent. The result was a shocker, and the fact that it wasn't even close made it more so.
The special election was mandated when the Supreme Court ruled in June that the district, part of a vast congressional district redrawing plan conceived by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), was unconstitutionally drawn because it excluded Hispanic voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Seven Democrats jumped into the Nov. 7 election, hoping at the least that they could keep Bonilla from attaining a majority. Mission accomplished: Bonilla finished a clear first, but with 49 percent of the vote; his failure to break the 50 percent threshold necessitated Tuesday's runoff. That gave Rodriguez, the second-place finisher on Nov. 7 with 22 percent, the opportunity to rally Democratic voters, of which he took advantage. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, still on a high from its success of retaking the House last month, decided to pour money into the district on Rodriguez's behalf.
Rodriguez was elected to the House in 1996 and represented the neighboring 28th District until he was defeated in the 2004 Democratic primary by the more conservative Henry Cuellar. He lost another primary contest to Cuellar back in March, by an even larger margin. But when Bonilla's 23rd CD was redrawn, boosting Hispanic voting strength to 61 percent, Rodriguez got in the race. And while the conventional wisdom was that he was going to lose this time as well, he did have something going for him in the Dec. 12 runoff that he didn't have in the Nov. 7 first-round election: The Democrats were now going to be the majority party.
Fun fact: Rodriguez is the first member of Congress to lose an election and then win a different one in the same year since Gordon Smith in 1996. Smith lost a special Senate race to Ron Wyden (D) to succeed the disgraced Bob Packwood early in '96, then won the seat of retiring Republican Mark Hatfield later that same year.
Barack Around the Clock: Last week's column spoke of the Barack Obama for President phenomenon, which brought in quite a bit of mail. Marjorie Smith of Durham was among those at Sunday's New Hampshire victory party which featured Obama as the keynote speaker. Marjorie writes, "People were not there to celebrate two new Democratic congressmen, or three (out of five) executive councilors, or the smashing re-election of the Democratic governor, or the taking of the state House and Senate. They had moved past that — old news — and were there looking for something new. I was a little disappointed. The words were the same I've heard over and over and seemed (I'm not sure which word is correct) trite, hollow, rote, albeit earnest. The crowd was enthusiastic, and Obama's quiet tone sets some of the mood, but I know Bill Clinton and he was no Bill Clinton. That may be good and it may be bad."
Also not caught up in the Obama wave is Robert Levine of St. Louis, Mo: "I have personally seen Obama quite a bit over the last two and a half years. You know, after a few times his preacher-like fervor wears on you. His speeches, like most mid-level elected politicians, are basically the same. They talk about his background and rise to the Senate. I am not sure that he is seasoned enough for the grueling national stage. If he attracts the right campaign personnel and speechwriters, that could possibly change. But for the amount of time he's been under the 'light' he is not yet quite ready."
Similarly, Mike Moore of Kent, Wash., a self-described "left-leaning independent," wants to know, "With no extensive experience, no gravitas, a few local skeletons in his closet, little of what people look for as presidential qualifications in ANY candidate, let alone a black candidate (whom, by default, they hold to a higher standard), why would they vote for Barack Obama? Spare me the glowing, fawning, messianic adulation. Whoever is the next Democratic candidate had better have something going for him or her other than idealistic optimism, and more style than substance."
Mark Richard of Columbus, Ohio, writes, "Your analogy to Ted Kennedy in 1979 was astute. I also recall that John Lindsay was taken very seriously as a possible president right up to the moment he announced in 1971, and that Mario Cuomo, whose chances of actually being elected president were remote at best, was nevertheless written about breathlessly by political writers in the 1980s. The two gentlemen above, however, along with Kennedy in '79, strike me as the most over-hyped politicians of my adult lifetime when it came to presidential prospects. Obama bids fair to join them."
Not so, says Gregory Freeman of Phoenix, Ariz.: "Obama is so appealing of a candidate because he is so new and so fresh. It is easy for people to project on to him their own vision of what America is capable of and should stand for. Compare that to these entrenched, inflexible front-runners (Hillary and McCain) that I've been seeing for years. You see Hillary trying to re-invent herself and escape the perceptions that exist already. You see McCain defying many of the things that he's stood for to pander to the religious right. And you see Obama just being Obama. His appeal is who he is, not what bacon he's brought home. Whom would you rather hang out with at the coffee shop and just talk? That's an easy choice for me."
Janet Howe, who lives in the same part of Chicago where Obama resides, writes, "I think the overall consensus about him has always been that he was and is a very capable and smart legislator. While I think he might be the best thing that could happen to the U.S. presidency, I have mixed feelings about whether the presidency would be good for him (and his family). I think he may be too complicated a man to be as single-minded and willing to become all things to all people as politicians seem to need to become to be president, and I'm afraid that's what it takes to win the presidency in this country at this time. Until we grow up as a people, we're going to get presidents who will say and do whatever they think is needed to just get votes, no matter what the cost to our country."
What Peg Kennedy of Willseyville, N.Y., likes about Obama is that he "represents a new 'American Blend' of many diverse descriptions — ethnic and otherwise — who does not fit neatly into any category. Obama is as white and American as his mother and as black and Kenyan as his father. A 'blended' black/ white/ American/ international/ secular/ religious Intelligent Human Being — an example of what most future American (and perhaps world) citizens will look like and what describes many of us already. Also, as a New York resident, I'd appreciate it if Sen. Clinton decided to stay on as our senator for a few more terms. Our beautiful and resource-rich state could use someone smart, influential and tough enough to help bring it back from economic and population decline. And with a strong Democratic governor in Albany, Clinton has a great chance to do just that. I fear if she wastes her talent in a campaign to 'Be the First,' the current anti-Hillary climate will continue to keep the nation divided."
Staying on the Obama yes/Hillary no theme, Dan Conley of Chicago writes, "In 2004, I was with John Edwards and I agree with the former Edwards supporter you quote — he seems even less substantial now than he did back then. And I also agree with the statement that Obama sucks the oxygen out of the rest of the pack. And I'm also willing to say something a lot of my colleagues won't — that the party has a moral obligation to stop Hillary Clinton. It's nothing personal against her; it's just that this country has had enough. Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton? Revisiting Whitewater and Monica? Giving cover to the supporters of the Iraq War? No, thank you. It's time to move on (or as Bush seems to say a lot these days, find a way forward.)"
Barack to the Future. As I noted last week, the radio piece done on Obamamania by NPR's Mara Liasson on "All Things Considered" Dec. 8 is not to be missed, but not only because you get to hear Nina Totenberg sing "Obama" to the tune of West Side Story's "Maria." There is also remarkable tape of a phone call from Obama apologizing to a wronged journalist from Georgia after Obama had ruined his chances with a potential date by mistaking him for a college student at a press conference. And how did NPR get that phone call, you want to know?
It was all the inspiration of Mike Danforth, a producer over at the irreverent Wait Wait Don't Tell Me NPR program out of Chicago. It was Mike who had the idea of calling up the folks at Obama's office after reading of the episode in Nick Lovelady's (the wronged journalist) column. The Obama staff offered Mike the tape, which was broadcast on Wait Wait several weeks ago.
Kentucky Fried Subject. I concede we beat the Alben Barkley story to death in both the Nov. 29 column and some recent podcasts. The question, for those who might have forgotten (or wish they had forgotten), is whether the last time a sitting president and vice president didn't run for president was 1952 or 1928. NPR's Ron Elving, my podcast cohort, says it was 1952. The Ken Rudin argument (the obviously correct one) says it was 1928, because Vice President Alben Barkley was indeed a candidate for the nomination in '52 (though granting he had no chance).
The latest to add his vote to the Rudin argument is Chris Miller of Charlotte, N.C. Chris says he "was on the fence until I came across this New York Times article from July 23, 1952, dateline Chicago:
"The C.I.O leader sent a telegram to Mr. Barkley in deeply personal terms, undoubtedly hopeful of assuaging his disappointment at the collapse of his Presidential candidacy. ... A group of labor leaders, including some from the C.I.O, publicly rejected the Barkley candidacy on Sunday, saying his age was a handicap and that his name was being used by 'reactionaries' to control the Democratic Party.'"
"Later on the article mentions 'the withdrawal of Vice President Barkley from the race for the top nomination.'"
"Clearly, Barkley WAS a candidate in 1952, meaning 2008 will be the first time since 1928 that no POTUS or VP has sought election. Now, at long last, may we settle the debate of 1928 vs. 1952. Now may the healing between these two camps begin."
Both Dale Prentiss, who in the Nov. 29 column was doing research on this topic until he realized he was late for dinner at his girlfriend's house, and Nathan Taylor, a former NPR intern, came across the July 21, 1952, issue of Time magazine which reported, "After announcing his candidacy in Washington, [Barkley] defied all political rules by retreating to his comfortable brick house in Kentucky. He puttered around his four farms. He went on picnics with Mrs. Barkley; he helped his hired man saw up an old cherry log. On his last day at home, he came back from the telephone with a glitter in his eye. 'You know,' he said gleefully, 'they've got a campaign button up there in Chicago with a streak of lightning running right through my name!'"
Let the record show that that button appeared in the Nov. 29 column.
Actually, there just so happened to be a serious Barkley e-mail that arrived before this whole nonsense started:
Q: After President Truman tapped Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley to be his running mate, the nation's oldest elected second fiddle was again elected by Kentucky voters to return to the Senate for another term once Truman's White House days had ended. The once and future Sen. Barkley suffered a fatal heart attack during a speech in Virginia at Washington & Lee in 1956, and died shortly afterward. Two questions: Besides Barkley, have other vice presidents returned to Congress? (I know Walter Mondale tried in 2002 but failed.) And how many serving vice presidents died while in office? — Clay Robinson, Georgetown, Ky.
A: As for your first question, several former vice presidents did manage to return to the Senate after their VP tenure was over, but only one has done so since Barkley: Hubert Humphrey, who was vice president under Lyndon Johnson from 1965-69, and the unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee in 1968. Two years later, Humphrey returned to the Senate from Minnesota, winning the seat vacated by the retiring Eugene McCarthy. HHH was re-elected in '76 and died in office.
And as for the part about vice presidents who died in office, that number is seven. The last one was James Sherman (R), William Howard Taft's VP, who died on Oct. 30, 1912, just days before the election in which Taft would be defeated for a second term.
BACK FROM THE DEAD. A question from Jon Yuengling of West Norriton Township, Pa., that all of America wants to know: "So when will you be on Talk of the Nation again? Do we have to wait for the run up to 2008?"
Have no fear: The "Political Junkie" segment of TOTN returned on 12/13 after a brief, two-week absence. This week's show: a maybe from Obama, a yes from Dennis Kucinich, and those final two congressional runoffs. Unless we hear from our lawyers, the Junkie segment is back on the schedule, every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. Eastern time. Check local listings to see if your local NPR station carries TOTN. If not, you can always hear the program on the web at npr.org.
And … one thing the Iraq Study Group did NOT recommend: that you listen to "It's All Politics," our political podcast hosted by NPR's Ron Elving and me that can be downloaded each week from our website. New edition of the podcast goes up every Thursday afternoon.
Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.
This Day in Political History: House Democrats, out of the majority for the first time in 40 years, name their leadership team: Richard Gephardt (MO) as Minority Leader, David Bonior (MI) as Whip, Vic Fazio (CA) as Caucus chair, and Martin Frost (TX) as head of the Congressional Campaign Committee (Dec. 13, 1994).
Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: email@example.com.