Thursday, June 15, 2006

Senate Independents

[This is expanded from a comment in R_I_A's Lieberman post below]

Joe Lieberman is looking past the Democratic primary and pondering a run as an independent candidate for the Senate seat he now holds.

The numbers favor a jump from the Donkey ship. Poll data shows Lieberman's Democratic challenger, Ned Lamont, has momentum and is closing the gap among registered Democrats. But recent poll shows Lieberman, running as an Independent, likely would get 56% of the vote to 18% for Lamont and 8% for the Republican in the race.

Should the Democrat abandon the party and win re-election to the Senate anyhow, it would be unusual, but not unique. Still, considering the Senate has traditionally been the less partisan of the two houses of Congress, independent Senators have been as rare as hen's teeth.

Senators have jumped to third parties or splinter parties and won re-election, and Jim Jeffords from Vermont is a recent case of a Senator who left his party but not his party's principles.

Looking back a bit, one of the rare true independents to have served in the Senate was Abe Lincoln's friend David Davis, well-known to Civil War buffs.

He was a Whig before the Republicans absorbed them, and he followed most of his fellow partisans into the new party, but his first loyalty was to Lincoln. Lincoln rewarded him in 1862 with a seat on the Supreme Court. In his years on the bench, Davis took care to disassociate himself from partisan politics and chart a course as an independent. Illinois elected him to the Senate and he resigned from the Supreme Court in 1877 to serve in the other branch.

Thanks to a partisan deadlock in the Senate in 1881, Davis probably was the only independent ever to serve as President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

An ideal presiding officer, the judicious Davis was described as "a neutral statesman who finds little of good and much of evil in each party."

Which agrees with the judgments of many modern historians who look back on the era. Careless listings of U.S. Senators continue to give Davis an "R" affiliation, but he had left that behind by 1877.

A career that might hew closer to Lieberman's is that of George W. Norris, a cantankerous Nebraska lawyer who served in the Senate as a Republican from 1913 to 1936.

He fought furiously to block Democratic President Woodrow Wilson's measures to involve the United States in World War I, filibustering against legislation to arm U.S. merchant ships in the Atlantic against German subs.

"Under this bill," Norris said, "the president can do anything; his power is absolutely limitless. The Constitution says the Congress has sole power to declare war. This in effect is an amendment of the Constitution, an illegal amendment. We are abdicating, we are surrendering our authority." After the war, he fought against ratification of the Versailles treaty.

But he had always had widespread Democratic support in Nebraska, and he campaigned for Al Smith (1928) and F.D.R. (1932, 1936). By 1936 he was a firm New Dealer and the Republicans had essentially read him out of their rolls. Norris won another Senate term that year as an independent. He lost his bid for re-election in 1942 to a Republican.

Among his Senate accomplishments was writing the Twentieth Amendment which pushed up presidential inaugurations from March to January.

Some have compared Norris to Nebraska's current maverick Republican, Chuck Hagel.

A closer, and more recent, example for Lieberman would be Wayne Morse, the “Conscience of the Senate,” an Oregon progressive Republican on the model of LaFollette, who broke from the GOP over the choice of conservative Richard Nixon as VP candidate in 1952, "[s]ymbolically placing a folding chair in the aisle separating the parties in the Senate chamber," and survived the better part of a term as an independent before being absorbed into the Democratic Party in 1955.

But he was independent among the Democrats, too, and in 1964 he was one of only two Senators to vote against the Johnson Administration's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Morse lost his seat in 1968 -- to Bob Packwood. Morse once wrote, "as long as I serve on this job I am going to serve my own master under obligation to no one."