While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scrambles to assemble 60 Democratic votes for health care legislation that, according to the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls, is opposed by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin, several Democratic members of the House are scrambling for the exits on what is starting to look like a sinking ship.
You may have noticed that I avoided using the cliche "rats leaving the sinking ship," because the four Democratic House members who over the last three weeks announced their decisions to retire rather than run for re-election cannot fairly be characterized as rats.
To the contrary, Dennis Moore (Kansas 3), John Tanner (Tennessee 8), Brian Baird (Washington 3) and Bart Gordon (Tennessee 6) are competent House members who between them have won election to Congress 36 times. Gordon is chairman of the House Science Committee; Tanner was offered an appointment to succeed Al Gore in the Senate in 1992; Baird was lead sponsor of measures to ensure the continuity of Congress in time of national disaster. All have claims to significant legislative accomplishments.
And to political success in marginal Democratic territory. Gordon and Tanner represent districts that voted heavily for John McCain in 2008; Moore's usually Republican district gave Barack Obama a small majority; Baird's suburban district has voted at just about the national average in the last three presidential elections.
All four cited plausible personal reasons for calling it quits, and none can be unaware that there is a robust job market in Washington for former Democratic congressmen with good political skills. Members of Congress make $174,000 a year; heads of trade associations make upward of $741,000 and don't have to return to home districts on weekends.
All four of these retiring members faced the prospect of tougher opposition in 2010 than they have encountered in years. Tanner and Gordon are from what I call the Jacksonian belt, the area settled by Scots-Irish southwest from West Virginia to Texas, where Barack Obama ran poorly in both primaries and the general election last year. Polls in nearby Jacksonian Arkansas have shown Democratic incumbents running even with or behind unknown Republican challengers.