If true, this legacy says more about how the Senate has changed than anything about Simon. The former Illinois senator was someone who celebrated his somewhat old-fashioned nature, and he sought to wield influence in somewhat old-fashioned ways—by framing how issues would debated (a non-lawyer, he obtained a slot on the Judiciary Committee, recognizing the importance that even lower-tier judicial nominations would have on contemporary politics) or in highlighting issues that otherwise might have been ignored (financial disclosure in the cynical world of 1950s Illinois politics, Americans’ inability to speak foreign languages in an increasingly global world). Dissenters traditionally have made their mark in the Senate by taking the approach that Simon did; in the more partisan, less idea- and debate-oriented Senate, however, that strategy seems less and less likely to yield results.
Reflecting on the passing of senators, the NTSB also recently released its report on the plane crash that killed Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, concluding that pilot error caused the crash. In this sense, the report provides another reminder of the importance of chance in politics.
In a preview of how Howard Dean would gain ground in 2003, Wellstone had celebrated his dissent from Bush administration policies in a tough 2002 reelection contest. His vote against the resolution authorizing war in Iraq improved rather than weakened his chances, and in the days before his death, he had amassed a comfortable lead over his GOP challenger, (now senator) Norm Coleman. If Wellstone had lived, he almost certainly would have prevailed in November, producing a Senate with a 50-49 Republican majority. Yet widespread speculation existed that Republican senator Lincoln Chafee would have joined Jim Jeffords as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats had his vote made the difference in terms of which party organized the Senate. One wonders how 2003 would have differed politically had Tom Daschle rather than Bill Frist served as Senate majority leader.
The potential effects of Wellstone’s death call to mind a similar event from political history. In 1917, Wisconsin senator Paul Husting, a Democrat, was accidentally killed while deer hunting. Although an election for his seat was not due until 1920, Wisconsin law mandated a special election, which was won by Republican Irvine Lenroot. The 1918 elections produced a Senate with a 49-to-47 Republican majority; had Husting lived, Democratic Vice President Thomas Marshall would have cast the tie-breaking vote to organize an evenly divided Senate, meaning that Democrat Gilbert Hitchcock rather than Henry Cabot Lodge would have chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Perhaps the fate of the Treaty of Versailles would have been the same. But there was little question that Lodge’s delaying tactics (the hearings lasted three months) and his calling of effective anti-Wilson witnesses such as Robert Lansing and William Bullitt helped pierce the atmosphere of inevitability surrounding the treaty’s adoption.