There’s plenty of talk about a “status quo” election, and that’s true in general – but the details matter. And the detail that matters the most in terms of change from the 2012 cycle is the influx of new liberal energy into the U.S. Senate. I've been pounding on this one since before the election, but I don’t think people get it yet.
See, for example, today’s news, with Patty Murray (unofficially, so far) claiming the gavel of the Senate Budget Committee (via Matt Yglesias). She’ll be replacing the retiring deficit hawk Kent Conrad. Murray’s priorities? She told Politico’s Scott Wong:
“I think what’s been lacking from our discussion for a long time is really that other part of what a Budget chair does, which is set the priorities for this country in terms of making sure we invest in the right places, in education, in job training, and to make sure we do a balanced approach moving forward,” Murray said in an interview just outside the Senate chamber.
“I am fighting for those middle-class families who want us to deal with our debt and deficit, but they also want the investments that are critical to our country moving forward. And I want to help them understand why this word ‘budget’ is so important to them,” she added. “It’s about whether their kids get access to college, or we have an ability to create the infrastructure for our roads to bring new jobs here, or we have job training, and a really deep concern of mine, that we are ready to take care of the veterans who are returning home by the hundreds of thousands.”
It’s not so much that Conrad was all that conservative; it’s that all of his passion went into reducing budget deficits. Even if Conrad and Murray would vote the same way on many things, her priorities are going to be very different.
It’s not clear that the voting record of the new group of Democratic senators will be significantly more liberal than that of the old group, which contained reliable liberals such as Herb Kohl and Daniel Akaka; don’t forget that newcomers Joe Donnelly and Tim Kaine will probably be on the moderate end of the party. (Dylan Mathews looked at one estimate of their ideological differences; see also Boris Shor’s estimates of the incoming class’s positioning, available here.)
However, whatever energy the exiting group had displayed in the last few years was pretty much confined to Conrad’s deficit obsession and to various Joe Lieberman enthusiasms — very few of them liberal.
That’s about to change. Elizabeth Warren all by herself will probably have more liberal energy than Kohl, Akaka, Conrad, Lieberman, Jeff Bingaman and Jim Webb have displayed over their past terms combined. Tammy Baldwin, too. Mazie Hirono and Chris Murphy will likely be very active liberals as well. The rest of the group – Martin Heinrich, Angus King, Kaine and Donnelly – are more moderate, but it’s likely that whatever they wind up specializing in will at least be more liberal than Conrad’s and Lieberman’s enthusiasms. The likely outcome, as I've been saying, isn't just more reliable liberal votes; it's going to show up on which hearings are called, which subjects the Senate tries to tackle and which bills are drafted.
We have yet to see how this will play out, but I agree with Yglesias about this: It really hasn’t sunk in yet that we’re talking about a different Senate. And that’s going to have all sort of consequences over the course of the next two years, the next six years and probably beyond.