Watching the Senate Rot in Slow Motion

Staffers have no choice but to adopt a defensive and insecure posture, their limited range of motion gets constrained by those at the top.
First of all, I'm really glad we elected Jim Webb a Senator from Virginia. He has worked on some essential topics, including military contracting, Iran and prisons, that few politicians will touch. And he's far better than the racist and somewhat sadistic George Allen, who in his youth apparently used to beat people with pool cues.

That said, Webb has been incredibly underwhelming as a Senator; his response to the State of the Union last year was stunningly good, with a promise that Democrats would show Bush a different path if he refused to change policies on Iraq. Unfortunately, there was no follow-through whatsoever, and Webb's credibility has been shot full of holes, with bad votes on FISA, tax policy, and censuring Moveon members like me (AliceDem in the comments reminds us of his poor votes on the Peru Free Trade agreement and his letter asking the FCC to allow more media consolidation). He has in some ways become a sad joke of a figure, a heroic figure neutered by his own deference to the authoritarians he ran against and at one point in his life, worked for. He endorsed George Allen and George Bush in 2000, and in some ways, he still does.

I expect him to be a great Senator one day, but as of yet, this environment is designed precisely around his weaknesses, not his strengths. Though he is willing to take on tough issues, he is unable to make any progress. Military contracting, Iran, the Webb amendment on Iraq - all have been stymied, with record disapproval from the public against Democrats for their failures. It's as if he cannot bring himself to use actual leverage against the Commander-in-Chief, because that's not how one does business.

What I find especially interesting is how his failed leadership has had such a devastating impact on his staff. Mark Levine details a conversation he had with a Webb staffer on the FISA legislation. It's a long and interesting conversation, and it shows how frustrated this staffer really is at the pressure received about his vote on this and other matters. As it happens, I have worked a bit with this staffer, and I like her very much, but it is clear that the lack of dialouge from Webb with the liberals who got him elected has created a tense and difficult environment and filtered down.
Matt Stoller is a political activist/blogger in DC, and was an editor at MyDD from November 2005 until June 2007. He also consults for the Sunlight Foundation,, and Working Assets as well as proactively networking other progressive bloggers/internet activists and progressive professionals.
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