the national interest

Ben Nelson Goes Out With a Whimper

No Nelson Mandela Photo: Kris Connor/Kris Connor

Ben Nelson will retire rather than seek reelection, reducing the Democrats’ chances of retaining a majority of the Senate, and thus increasing the chances that Republicans gain control of the presidency and both houses of Congress and can muscle through a plan to cut taxes and repeal health-care reform. But what of Ben Nelson?

In some ways Nelson is a tragic, pathetic figure. A popular Democrat holding office in a deeply Republican state, he was the most vulnerable member of his caucus. During the few months when his party had 60 votes in the Senate, he was the proverbial 60th vote, and with Republicans unwilling to negotiate on health-care reform he held enormous sway. He held out the longest, and he could have used his vote to demand almost anything. He could have asked for malpractice reform, tougher cost controls, or any other concession that pushed the bill to the right. What he chose to use it for was a parochial demand to give his home state a special Medicaid subsidy.

Nelson no doubt figured this would make him a hero back home. Instead it made him a pariah, as the “Cornhusker Kickback” became a symbol of principle-free horsetrading, and it dynamited his reputation in Nebraska. His very attempt to save his hide wound up costing it.

Ben Nelson Goes Out With a Whimper