Other than the H1N1 virus, the most contagious disease in our nation's capital is retirement. It is catching. The more Democrats that quit, the more others are also encouraged to hang it up. Retirements like those of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., turn off donors to Democratic incumbents, encourage viable Republican challengers to get in races around the nation and lead other incumbent Dems to think about spending more time as lobbyists making money in Washington.
And the retirement bug is in full reign in Washington. In the week before Christmas, three Democrats from red districts retired (two from Tennessee and one from Kansas) and a fourth, Parker Griffith of Alabama, became a Republican. Now, with Dodd's and Dorgan's retirements, we can expect the blue legislators from red states to start falling ever more quickly.
But these retirements also send a signal to voters that is anything but helpful to President Obama: They signal that Democrats expect to lose. Nobody buys that these folks are leaving to spend more time with their families. Voters all realize that Democratic senators and congressmen are reading the handwriting on the walls, which sends the same message as the polls -- that voters are fed up with the Obama administration and with the Democratic Party.
To see Democrats stand up and, in effect, admit defeat is a bit like watching repentant sinners confessing at a revival meeting. One outburst triggers another. And the specter of Democratic leaders running from having to face their constituents again convinces swing voters that maybe there is something rotten in the party and in its congressional delegation.
Dorgan and Dodd both retired because they felt they would lose. But each had new scandals to fear had he actually run.
Dorgan never had to account to the voters of North Dakota for his role in accepting almost $100,000 in campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff's firm or the Indian tribes it represented. In return for these funds, Dorgan interceded on behalf of one tribe in Massachusetts and another in Mississippi, both far from his home state. Because his involvement came out after the 2004 elections had been held and he was safely returned to Congress, he never had to face the voters.