Jay Rockefeller surprised the Senate and West Virginia yesterday with what one reporter called a “stunning coal-industry-needs-to-face-reality speech.” Politico’s Charles Mahtesian concluded that it signaled that Rockefeller has decided never to face the voters again.

I have no idea whether Rockefeller (D) is in fact retiring from the Senate after his current term ends in 2014. And I have mixed feelings about whether it’s a good thing for a politician to turn on the interests of his state once he’s no longer constrained by reelection.

I will say one thing about Rockefeller, however, who I think has been a fine Senator over his long career in that body: if he’s going to do it, better now than later. It’s a marked contrast with Olympia Snowe, who suddenly decided to act on Senate reform long after it was likely to actually come to a vote while she was in office — or Evan Bayh, who basically did the same thing. Nothing came of Bayh’s too-little-too-late reformism, and I suspect nothing will come of Snowe’s, either.

But Rockefeller, at least, is (apparently) beginning to act with over two years remaining in office to make something of it. Of course, one politician taking action — especially in the Senate — is hardly a guarantee of success. And again: I’m not necessarily a fan of politicians turning to “legacy” projects at the end of their careers. However, if he’s going to do that, then I’m impressed that he may really try to get something done, rather than just trying to buy himself a nice send-off by giving an interview or writing an op-ed on the way out.