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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

RIP Robert Byrd

It’s been a tough year for the Democratic tradition in the U.S. Senate, with the loss of Edward Kennedy and the solidification of the Almighty Filibuster as the real power in the institution. But the death of Sen. Robert Byrd of WV really does turn a lot of pages, while denying the Senate its unrivalled historian and parliamentarian.
Byrd’s tenure alone makes him one of the titans of Senate history: more than a half-century, spanning the administrations of eleven presidents. He was, however, the junior senator from West Virginia until he was 68, and in another reflection of the Senate’s slow pace of change, his career overlapped with only five Democratic leaders–not counting Byrd himself.
When Byrd was first elected to the Senate in 1958, Democrats from his corner of the world were typically hard-core segregations and equally hard-core New Deal economic progressives. He abandoned and apologized for the former habit, but never the latter. The persistent poverty of West Virginia–for much of his career it included some of the very poorest areas of the country–made it one place where politicians never shrank from the full exercise of power on behalf of the home folks, or from celebration of the seniority system that gave Byrd and so many others the clout to serve as equalizers. Byrd became the embodiment of Senate traditions for good reason: they served his constituents well.
He survived wave after wave of efforts in both parties to change the Senate and make it more responsive to national political trends, and might well have survived one or two more had he been born ten years later. He also survived wave after wave of efforts to bend Congress to the will of presidents of both parties, and in that respect was more consistent than most of his colleagues in both parties.
In this era of political turbulence and simmering resentment of professional politicians, it’s unlikely America will ever see another Senator like him. And so in a very real sense a big part of national history will go to the grave with him. His distinctive and authoritative voice will be missed, and may he rest in peace.

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