Thursday, February 09, 2006

It’s Not DiMaggio for Williams, But It’s Time for a Trade

By Stuart Rothenberg

It’s true that I’m not, and have never been, a general manager of a Major League Baseball team. Those guys make much more money than I do, and these days you have to be under 35 to be hired for one of those jobs.

But I have a trade that is just screaming to be made, and I’d like to put it on the table right now.

I propose that the Republicans send Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee to the Democrats in return for Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson. No Members to be named later. No future draft picks exchanged. Just an old-fashioned one-for-one deal. Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn.

Let’s get totally real about what’s going on here. Chafee is a Democrat, and Nelson is a Republican. They just find themselves trapped in the wrong parties. It’s like one of those “Freaky Friday” movies.

If you check the stats, you’ll find the two Senators have remarkably similar Congressional Quarterly party unity and presidential support ratings, as well as similar numbers from major liberal, conservative, business and labor interest groups. In 2003 and 2004, with Republican President Bush in the White House, Democrat Nelson had higher presidential support ratings than did Republican Chafee.

Put Nelson in the GOP and his pro-business and conservative ratings will rise. Chafee as a Democrat would see his labor and liberal ratings increase.

Chafee, of course, was the only Republican Senator to vote against confirming Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voted for Alito. So did Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and everyone else. For Republicans, this was a litmus test vote.

Nelson was one of only four Democrats to vote to approve Alito, but he was the first to do so, and he did so more enthusiastically than the others. Face it, Nelson was going to vote for Alito if he had been the only Democrat to do so. Of course, that wouldn’t bother him. He is Bush’s favorite Democrat.

A quick check of some other high-profile votes also shows Nelson and Chafee are in the wrong parties.

Chafee voted for extending the assault weapons ban for 10 years, against a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, against criminalizing harm to a fetus in an attack on its mother, and against extending middle-class tax breaks. Nelson was on the opposite side on each vote.

Politically, the trade might well be in Chafee’s interest. His vote against Alito will be another nightmare for his political strategists and a gift for his primary opponent, Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey (R).

Given the symbolism of the vote and the hot-button issue (at least for rank-and-file Republicans) of judges, Chafee’s vote against confirmation is an engraved invitation for GOP primary voters to cast their ballots for the mayor.

And if you are at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Chafee’s Alito vote has to give you indigestion, since you are in the awkward position of having to spend substantial funds to save Chafee even though you have plenty of other races that need your cash. The committee has already run two TV spots attacking Laffey, and it will probably have to do more in its effort to save Chafee in the primary.

For Nelson, his chance to vote for Alito was a gift. While he is a clear favorite for re-election in November, his vote for confirmation is another high-profile example of his political “independence,” of his assertion that he isn’t a knee-jerk Democrat.

Three Republicans are vying to take on Nelson. Pete Ricketts, a wealthy businessman, probably is the strongest potential challenger. He has already put almost $1 million into the race, is articulate and energetic, and has hired a strong campaign team.

But Ricketts’ biggest advantage is his party label, and that advantage is diluted dramatically by Nelson’s ability to portray himself as an ally of the president. And his vote for Alito is further evidence that he will support Bush when he is right.

While a one-for-one trade is reasonable, Democrats might demand something more. After all, while both Nelson and Chafee are up for re-election this year, and both have competitive races, Nelson is in far better shape.

Getting Nelson would solidify the GOP’s control of the Senate in November. That might mean the NRSC would need to offer the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee cash to even out the deal. Or Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R).

Thirty years ago, Chafee and Nelson wouldn’t stand out nearly as much as they do today. There were plenty of GOP moderates and a slew of moderate and conservative Democrats. But now, Chafee and Nelson stick out like sore thumbs in the Senate. I say trade ’em.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 6, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.