Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rotation And Term Limits: Build Soil

We all know what happened last year: U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd moved out of his sinecure, for reasons he prefers to keep private, as a result of which a spot opened up, a breach in the political universe. Into this vacuum rushed a number of Republicans and Democrats, including Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whom some thought immovable.

Democratic power brokers had for a number of years attempted to tempt Blumenthal from his seat, all without effect. They wanted him to run for governor. He gave off indications that this notion might be acceptable to him, always withdrawing at the last moment with a bow and an enigmatic smile: Thanks but no thanks. Reading his intentions was always a bit like interpreting the ambiguous oracle of Delphi which, depending upon one’s ambition and the bribe one could afford to pay the priestess in charge, could either mean declare war or sue for peace. U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman had been badly wounded in a primary skirmish with Ned Lamont, currently running for governor, and it was thought Blumenthal might run for Lieberman’s seat in a couple of years.

In the meanwhile, Dodd had slipped on blood. And when the senator made his announcement he would not defend his seat, Blumenthal leapt into the breach, a little too aggressively thought one commentator, Chris Powell of the Journal Inquirer. But at least the awkwardly ambitious leap gave everyone to understand that Blumenthal was not interested – perhaps never had been interested – in being governor of Connecticut, especially at this time, when the next governor, Republican or Democrat, must facedown a snarling tax prone legislature, a tool of special interests that seems determined to spend the state into bankruptcy.

Republican Gov. Jodi Rell also had declined to run for re-election, opening another fissure in Connecticut’s political universe. Into this gap, rushing where even angels feared to tread, Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz sped, but she soon had second thoughts. Following Blumenthal’s decision to run for Dodd’s seat, Bysiewicz decided she would rather be attorney general than governor.

Indeed, given the destitution of the state, who would not rather be attorney general than governor? The chief executive position is constitutionally hedged about by limited powers. The attorney general’s position is not. Recent practice suggests that the attorney general, far from being the people’s lawyer, is a freebooter, a sort of litigator-pirate on the high seas, blessedly free of the usual statutory and constitutional ties that bind mortal men to earth and set rational boundaries to their presumptions.

Bysiewicz’s shrewd move, political psychologists told us, was intended to position herself for a run against Lieberman. It worked for Blumenthal.

Now, all these open gaps raise interesting questions and give the lie to people who previously, objecting to term limits, had argued that term limitations would deprive institutions of important players. The fear concerning term limits, iterated ponderously in scores of editorials, was that institutions would lose precious intelligence in the offices abandoned.

And yet, look what has happened. It appears that politicians deprived of one office will seek out another. And – this is the neglected point – intelligence and experience are portable. Blumenthal, if he is successful in capturing Dodd’s seat, will carry with him into the senate the political acumen he has acquired as perhaps the most visible politician in the state but for the governor, whose leave taking has opened a position that will be filled by others, some of whom will carry their brains, private work experience and political experience into the new position they hope to occupy.

This puerile notion that term limits deprive the state of useful intelligence was always bogus. It is a point useful to kings and kingmakers but should have no place in a vibrant democracy. It is not only sunlight that keeps the crops from corrupting, but rotation as well. That frequent rotation in a democracy is essential will be obvious to anyone who has spent some time studying the founding documents of the country, not to mention the poems of Robert Frost:

Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself
Until it can contain itself no more,
        But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little.

A rotation that moves the political spheres may be hard on incumbents, some of whom imagine they may remain in office until the last trumpet sounds, but it is necessary in a free republic that politicians from time to time get plowed under.
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