Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mulling Over Mel

It would be impossible to overstate how rare it is for a sitting U.S. senator to voluntarily retire from public life. Usually, they have to be carried out in a box.

Retire? Never! Remember Strom Thurmond? He even ran for reelection once as a corpse -- or so it appeared -- and won!

Even more so, a first-term, freshman Senator almost never of his own free will turn in his Capitol Card. Unlike, say, a congressman who has to start running for reelection the moment the poor sap has been elected the first time, U.S. senators serve much longer six-year terms in office. They are very nearly free of the shadow of accountability for at least four of those years, and usually more.

By the time they have served a full term they are practically part of the furniture in everyone's home. Unlike lesser politicians, they don't have to spend very waking minute grubbing for bucks to finance the next campaign; the really big bucks somehow find their way to them.

This is, of course, because even a freshmen senator has a tremendous amount of power under the rules of the "higher" chamber. A single senator can anonymously block major presidential appointments, hold trial-like hearings into everything from the I.R.S. to your choice of a mother in law, and even bring the business of the entire 100-member Senate, and sometimes the U.S. Government as a whole, to a sudden stop with a Jimmy Stewart style filibuster.

As for a senator with seniority? For example, one who has just embarked on his second six-year term? The power grid gets so electric it has been said that every U.S. senator who has ever been returned to office sooner or later fantasizes that some day he, too, may become president.

In short, being a U.S. senator is a really cushy job with lots and lots of power, oodles of prestige, and perks to make a pasha blush. Just about the only way you're ever going to see one them leave office voluntarily before reaching the age of a hundred and twenty is to beat him at the polls or, as with Hillary Clinton, offer an even better job.

We say "just about" because there is one other way: you can try to scare the daylights out of him. Threaten him. Let him know that he can't run for reelection -- or else.

Now, given the power and prestige we mentioned earlier, that isn't a very easy task. And it's highly unlikely to succeed. Just look at Joe Lieberman. Connecticut polls are now showing him with a popularity rating so low it makes Bush look good by comparison. But as the whole world witnessed when the Democratic Caucus met late last month, Lieberman doesn't scare. He may be a ligner and a trombenik but he's still a senator and so he doesn't scare easily. He hasn't committed any overt felonies, and so far as anyone knows he hasn't cheated on his wife since he married the second one.

All of which is a long way around saying, the Mel Martinez announcement that he isn't interested in running for reelection makes no sense to us. Not a bit. That it was followed within a matter of hours by Jeb Bush's signal that he would like to run for Senate -- well, as they say, do the math.

"Martinez's decision was based on a desire for more free time and a less scheduled life," a spokesman told the Washington Post. Do you buy that? We don't.

The one explanation with a high probability of truth that we can see is that someone, somewhere scared the tar out of Mel Martinez. How? Well, it's theoretically possible someone threatened to run against him in the Republican primary. But that didn't turn out so well for Lieberman's opponent, did it? With a Democratic Party in Florida as fractured as the Republicans were in Connecticut, Martinez had the same ace up his sleeve that Leiberman played two years ago -- and even if he lost the primary, Martinez likely would have won reelection in Florida as an "independent" as handily as Lieberman did in Connecticut.

It's also theoretically possible that some doctor scared Martinez. Maybe the senator has a disease so dreadful he knows he won't be around long enough to enjoy a second term. But even his own office isn't hinting at that.

A third possibility is that someone, somewhere has something really, really bad on Martinez. Something that could ruin his life or deprive him of that 'free time" and liberty he prizes so much. Someone who is in a position to promise that his future "schedule" won't be as regimented as, say, that of a prisoner.

Whatever the explanation may be, Jeb must have known it was serious enough that he could be confident in preparing trial balloons to announce his own interest in the job even before the echo of Martinez' pre-announcement announcement has died away.

This is purely guesswork, mind you, but it seems very nearly ineluctable if we are to be guided by history, human psychology, political experience, and U.S. Senate custom. Of all logical possibilities, the most probable is that Mel Martinez made a Big Mistake somewhere along the line, perhaps during his four years in Washington D.C. -- and it must have been a doozie.

Maybe, somehow, Jeb found out. Maybe with a little help from his brother? The brother who has taken domestic spying on U.S. citizens to lengths never before seen? Who knows? Somehow, Mel got the word.

Go ahead. "Talk us down," as Rachel Maddow would say. Give us one good logical, plausible, reality-based explanation for Mel Martinez' decision not to run for reelection. And then tell us how Jeb Bush could not have had anything to do with it, except that he knew about it amazingly fast.

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