By Mark Rhoads
Assistant US Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) has both an opportunity and a danger to face because he is confronted with the same difficult challenge that every party leader in either party always faces in any legislative body over many years. Durbin is close to his lifetime goal of becoming Majority Leader of the Senate in case Harry Reid loses his seat in Nevada (more likely each day) and the Democrats still keep the majority after November (less likely each day).
If Democrats do not win a mjority of Senate seats, Durbin would still like to be Minority Leader for Democrats because the profession of being in politics and holding office is all he really knows in his life, having only rarely practiced law as a very young man.
There are many advantages to being a party leader in terms of raising money and getting publicity. But the major downside with being the top party leader is the built-in conflict of interest that the welfare of the party must, by definition, come first and the state constituents take a back seat to that interest. The bad consequences of that all-consuming party duty is what Harry Reid is learning the hard way right now with his terrible polls in Nevada. A previous Democratic Majority Leader from Illinois, Sen. Scott Lucas, who carried all the water for the President Harry Truman when he was not popular, also learned that painful lesson when he lost his leader job and his Senate seat in 1950 to Republican challenger Everett Dirksen from Pekin, Illinois.
On Feb 25, Durbin put on his party leader hat to tell reporters, "We're going to get this done." The word "this" refers to the gigantic new Obamacare bill which has little support other than the fact that Obama wants it so show a feather in his cap to rationalize having wasted his first year in office on frivolous matters other than the urgent need for economic recovery. Even if a majority of Illinois voters in polls oppose Obamacare (and they do), Durbin might feel safe from any adverse consquence from Illinois voters since he does not have to face voters again for re-election until 2014 which means a lot of time for voters to forgive and forget. Harry Reid is up this year and does not have that luxury but Reid is now 70 and has more than enough years of service in Congress for a full pension plus he could still be appointed to a second job by Obama next year if he loses. Durbin is 65 now and will also be fully vested for his pension very soon if he is not already fully vested.
So sure, Durbin has enough vanity that he would like Illinois to reelect him in 2014 but he knows that as a recent former party leader he could still do lucrative lobbying work at age 69 when that income would also be a second income likely more than his pension. Based on his joined-at-the-hip close association with President Obama, Durbin might think he has nothing to lose from putting his party first. But all that assumes he is willing to throw several Illinois congressional Democrats in marginal districts to the wolves along with many state legislators and statewide candidates in his party. So does Durbin want to be the public face of the Democratic Party in Illinois as the First Stooge for Obama (FSO)? The answer is yes if he is thinking mostly about lining up 24 Democratic votes from other states for leader in January 2011 but the answer is no if he cares about any Democrats that cannot vote for him for the Senate leader. My bet is that Durbin's debating skill is so good that he can persuade himself that a bad bill for Illinois and the nation is really a good one for the sake of his party leader ambitions. He has done this before as he did in 1989 when he flip flopped his position on human life from pro-life to pro-choice in order to futher his party advancement that year and the next. Durbin is entirely owned by almost every powerful national Democratic interest group according to FEC donor records for his 2008 campaign So the stakes for the Burris seat are even greater while Durbin delays retirement since Illinois really needs at least one independent voice in the Senate and it does not have one now.