I don't think David Obey would have lost his bid for re-election in November, though it's impossible to know at this point what the mood of voters will be by then and how they view the job Democrats have done now that they control both the executive and legislative branches of government.
I do know that the Republicans have been high on his likely opponent in Wisconsin's 7th District, Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy. He has support from Tea Party activists, as well as would-be GOP prez nominees Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty. Duffy is young (38), energetic, in his fourth term, and happens to be a former cast member on MTV's "The Real World." Whatever that is.
So while I suspect that this would have been a grueling campaign for the congressman, I buy Obey's argument that he's leaving because he's just "worn out" and "bone tired." First elected in 1969, now the third-longest serving member of the House — after John Dingell (D-MI 1955) and John Conyers (D-MI 1964) — Obey has not had a significant challenge in years. At 71, he may or may not have been up to the rigors of a strenuous campaign. Either way, it would have been strenuous.
As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Obey's critical roles in the passage of health care and shepherding President Obama's economic program through Congress have put the GOP bullseye on his back. CQ Politics' Steven Dennis and Tory Newmyer had a nice piece yesterday on how Republicans were targeting Obey — along with Budget chair John Spratt (SC) and Armed Services chair Ike Skelton (MO) — as part of their bid to "use the lawmakers’ power against them and turn them into electoral trophies." The article goes on to talk about the significance when Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA), Judiciary Committee chair Jack Brooks (D-TX) and former Ways & Means Committee chair Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) were ousted in the 1994 Republican sweep, as well as the time in 1980 when the GOP defeated House Majority Whip John Brademas (D-IN) and Ways and Means chair Al Ullman (D-OR). Adding Obey, Spratt and Skelton this year would have been similar coups.
A lot has changed in the country since Obey was first elected to Congress in a special 1969 election, following the departure of Rep. Melvin Laird (R), who left to become President Nixon's secretary of defense. At the time of that election, Obey was 30, the youngest member of the House. Now he's, well, not that young. But Obey is still the same: a strong liberal, a true reformer, with deep passion and conviction. The Associated Press' Andrew Taylor, writing today about Obey's announced retirement, said the Wisconsin Democrat "also can have a gruff, sometimes prickly demeanor and doesn't suffer fools gladly."
But he was powerful, and well respected, and his leaving comes not long after the departure of another Dem giant, Pennsylvania's John Murtha, who died in February. Both were close with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and both were instrumental in setting their party's agenda in preparation for the 2010 midterms. Now one is gone and another is on his way out.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who writes he will really miss him, says the decision is both "sad and admirable":
Sad because there were few members who were more courageous and more substantive in their approach to government. By leaps and bounds, he's one of the members of Congress I have admired most, and for a long time.
Oh, yes, Obey could be ornery, and I could imagine that you didn't want to be in his way on a bad day. But when Obey was ornery, it usually had a purpose. And he was just such a refreshing break from the sort of politician who polls and focus-groups everything he says or does. Obey was a committed progressive in Wisconsin's great tradition. He never tried to be fashionable. Practical forms of old-fashioned social justice were just fine by him. He'd argue with Republicans, but also with people on his own side when that was necessary. He always knew his stuff. And he wasn't afraid.
But what's admirable is that Obey was just as straight-talking and uncompromising in stepping out as he was in all the fights he took on. ...
I don't think they make politicians like Dave Obey anymore, but I hope that some young politician out there looks to him and decides there is now an enormous vacuum to be filled. All you have to do is believe in what you're saying, master the legislative process, care about important issues, speak candidly and gruffly and be willing to make enemies — knowing that some people will like you just because you are so uncompromisingly who you are. When older politicians retire, people typically say "he will be missed." This time, they'll mean it.
A postscript about Obey and Murtha: When they each came to Congress, it was in a special election that sent shock waves through the country. Obey's 1969 victory was a seen as a rejection of the Vietnam War policy of a newly elected Nixon; Murtha's win in 1974 was an early signal that the GOP was going to pay a hefty price for Watergate.