Senate Moves Toward Balance

For all the ups an downs of the US elections, the money spent, the people alienated and the egos brusied, the overall feeling in the US seems to be one of progress. That may be because national media is based in the ‘blue’ (i.e. DEM) coasts and the Cheyenne Picayune‘s apoplectic editor still hasn’t worked out what headline can get past the lawyers. But the result is more healing that it first appeared.

One area that pleases me is the outcome for the Senate. The Senate is the equivalent of the House of Lords but far more powerful. And curiously, as the Lords was once stuffed with cantankerous backwoodsmen with unenlightened views, but has diversified in members and mellowed in attitude, virtually the reverse is true of the Senate.

Originally a broad representation of the people by each state electing two of its senior representatives, it had become a boys club fit for any building in St James. Until recently not only were all of them multi-millionaire lawyers but they all seemed to stem from the same Holywood factory that churned out the older actors for Dallas or Dynasty. All have well coiffed silver hair, flawless teeth they deploy effortlessly to smile, impeccable suits with understated ties and deliver their lines like the seasoned professionals they are.

Watch any episode of The West Wing and note that the truly palm-sweating operation, requiring extensive prep, teamwork and impeccable timing wasn’t facing up to the Russians or negotiating with the Iranians but “going up to the hill” to meet Senate leadership. And that was when they were both nominally controlled by the same party.

Before anyone criticises this apparently adversarial relation, remember the executive (President), legislature (Congress) and judiciary (Supreme Court) were deliberately set up to counterbalance each other. The US Founding Fathers had seen enough unbalanced Brit power wielded entirely by the PM in parliament. Their system of checks and balances, whether flawed or no, have served them well: decades of Thatcher or Blair or any other messianic leader are simply not possible.

That said, there has been a tendency for the Senate to become a set of immensely presentable (and therefore re-electable) but faceless (and therefore re-electable) sea-lawyer gnomes who kiss ass, do lunch, cut deals and generally make top M&A business negotiators look like amateurs. While the House of Representatives does much of the work and gets its oars into negotiations whenever it can, the deal-makers and -breakers are in the Senate.

Hence the ‘old boys club’ accolade. And since a Senate campaign can cost you $100m, it’s not a game for the poor or even the arriviste. Now women had been storming this last citadel for some time. Until 1922 there had been no women Senators. In the next 90 years there would be 39 but 13 of those served by replacing their deceased husband. It got more serious 20 years ago: former mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein was one of five women Senators in the “Year if the Women” (kinda says it all, doesn’t it?).

Although 2010 was a better milestone when 17 women posed for the cameras, 2012 has proved to be especially enlightening not just because of the number of women but their sheer abilities and the manner in which they won. Bear in mind that the Democrats were defending three times the number of seats Republicans were and half-conceded that losing several seats and their 51-47 control was a possibility. Some results in detail:

Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts. This seat, held by Ted Kennedy for half a century, is as close as it gets to hallowed ground if you’re Democrat. When Ted died in 2010, a good campaign from Scott Brown won it for the Republicans. But Harvard Professor Warren had done sterling work in consumer financial protection (anathema to Republicans) and ran a scrappy campaign pushing women’s rights, equal pay and demolishing the generally reactionary Republican message for women.

Elizabeth Warren Takes the Tape in Massachusetts US Senate Contest

Claire McCaskill, Missouri. A first-term Senator and the first female one from Misouri had benefitted by her first contest being in 2006, during ‘Dubya’s’ dying days. She faced a strong challenge here in a ‘red’ state and was regarded as the most likely to lose a seat on the night. Even though the National Journal ranked McCaskill in the middle between liberal and conservative Senators, many Missourians saw her on the far left.  She cited “stubborn determination, tenacity and a refusal to give up” as helping her prevail in the election. And if that recalls Harry Truman, that might be because Truman used to hold exactly the same seat.

Not content with the odds being in their favour, the Republicans selected the most right-wing of their candidates to stand against her—Todd Akin, already a member of the US House of Representatives for Missouri and already well known. The whole contest went out of his control during an interview he gave on August 19, and aired on St. Louis television station KTVI-TV, in which he was asked was asked his views on whether women who became pregnant due to rape should have the option of abortion

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

It’s the sort of clumsy statement some people might make even if they were not so-called “pro-life” but this thing went viral and he lost by an 8% margin.

Tammy Baldwin,Wisconsin. Given this was Paul Ryan’s home state, it was regarded s being ‘in play’ and so when a seat was vacated by retiring Herb Kohl, she put her hat in the ring. By winning the election Baldwin became not only the first woman elected to the Senate from Wisconsin, she also became the nation’s first openly gay politician to win a Senate seat. And, in case you think her 100% down-home WI credentials were what tipped it for her, the man she beat—Tommy Thompson—was the state’s governor.

Making history is not exactly new to her. When she won Wisconsin’s 78th Assembly District back in 1992, she was the first openly gay member of the Wisconsin Assembly and one of only six openly gay political candidates to win a general election nationwide. She held the seat for three terms from 1993 to 1999.

None of these three examples of a new generation female Senators fit the mould. Even with the retiral of Maine’s formidable Olympia Snowe and Hilary Clinton’s calling to serve elsewhere, they join 17 others, some formidably experienced as Feinstein or Boxer, some bringing the fresh air and perspective that they themselves bring. But at one in five, they are no longer a faction to be accommodated but a force to be reckoned with and less likely to be fobbed off with the same trinkets.

Let’s see how the boys do—and if other countries like the UK don’t now pick up that gender tokenism at the top has had its day. What must be puzzling the right wing nursing some ugly bruises from Tuesday was how a bunch of girls coulda done it to ’em.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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