Book review: 'The Upper House' by Terence Samuel

By Bob Kerrey
Sunday, June 13, 2010


A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate

By Terence Samuel

Palgrave. 255 pp. $26

One of the great challenges of serving in the U.S. Senate is balancing the demands of the Capitol with those of your constituents. In 1994, during my campaign for re-election, my oldest son underscored this point when he warned me, "Dad, if you say 'with all due respect' one more time, I'm going to vote against you!" His point was that while certain language can help you succeed in Washington it can also make you a failure at home.

Terence Samuel's "The Upper House" explores the inner workings of the U.S. Senate through the lives of several current senators, including Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar. He describes the near impossibility senators face in fulfilling all the promises made during a campaign and explains why voters get frustrated when an election does not produce the immediate change for which they worked, voted and hoped.

Samuel, who formerly covered Congress for U.S. News and World Report, approaches his topic by way of the midterm election of 2006 and the presidential election of 2008. Both were decisive Democratic victories. In 2006 Democrats won control of the House and the Senate, as well as a majority of governorships and state legislatures. Post election-excitement and expectations were quite high. Nancy Pelosi had become the first woman speaker of the House. No incumbent Democrat had lost a seat in the House or Senate. In 2008 the Democratic caucus in the Senate increased from 51 members to 60 by the time Al Franken was finally declared the winner in Minnesota.

Many opponents of the policies of President Bush expected the new Congress to effect dramatic changes. In particular, they hoped it would bring the war in Iraq to a relatively quick end. To explain why that did not happen, Samuel follows the course of two Iraq-related amendments to their eventual defeat -- one that set withdrawal time tables and another that imposed deployment restrictions. The process of deliberation highlighted the difficulty of overcoming the combined barriers of Senate rules and partisan opposition. As the book develops, however, the author's strong opposition to the war in Iraq becomes much too obvious. It gets in the way of the story he really wants to tell, which is about how the Senate works. At times the book reads like a long opinion piece, distracting us from what is otherwise a well told account of the day-to-day work of the Senate.

Samuel lets his personal politics overwhelm his story in other areas, too. For example, of the Senate as it stood in 2007, he writes: "It was easy to understand the skepticism about Democratic motives. After all, too many of them voted for the war, and for the Bush tax cuts, and for No Child Left Behind, and for the flawed prescription drug benefit in Medicare -- all of which struck the Democratic base as hideously expedient capitulations, the typical Democratic cave-ins. It was lucky that the next thing the president wanted to tackle was Social Security, or we might never have seen Democrats walking upright again."

This leads him to make what I consider his most wrong-headed assessment, in speaking of Democratic senators who are more conservative than he is. "This notion of having to play on Republican, or at least conservative, terms has been a hallmark of Democratic politics for much of the last thirty years, and it explains the difficulty they often have winning elections." This reflects the cynical view that moderate to conservative Democrats are really liberals who are afraid to let their constituents find that out. Republican moderates are subjected to similar attacks from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

This belief that moderation must be some kind of copout is what is driving Democratic voters to the left and Republican voters to the right. But the fact is that a growing number of voters are in the middle -- moderate to liberal on social issues, conservative on the economy, strong on national defense and worried about the environment -- and our political polarization leaves them feeling that neither party represents them. The rush for the extreme ends of the spectrum also leaves a list of stubborn problems, caused by demographics or patterns of consumption and impossible to solve because the ideological pressure on Congress from both sides is too unforgiving. Compromise has become a dirty word. Suspicion has replaced trust, as can be seen in the author's attitude towards Republicans with whom he so clearly disagrees: "Republicans during the Bush era had been only serving their ideology and their own narrow self-interest."

Despite my reservations about the book, I think "The Upper House" will help Americans understand how the Senate works -- and why it often doesn't. The book's portraits of senators at work should spread the word that they are just people like all the rest of us. But the book's greatest value may be in giving guidance to those who aspire to serve in what is still the world's greatest deliberative body.

Bob Kerrey is president of the New School in New York City and a former Democratic senator from Nebraska.

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