OXFORD — Most Mississippians loathe the notion of “career politicians.” If, however, you ask any of these folks, “What do you think about Thad Cochran?” the answer will be “Thad? We love Thad. He’s not like the rest of them.”
“Vote for Cochran / He’s Not Like The Others” may not be a catchy campaign slogan, but it could work.
Mississippians know better than to tune in “Meet The Press” or “Face the Nation” and expect to see Cochran chattering away, much less red-faced and pounding on the desk. Blather is not the style of the state’s senior U.S senator.
Back in my newsroom days a congressional staffer I had talked with on the phone made an in-person visit. She had a colleague with her, and I asked what her friend did “on the Hill.” Both laughed. She was reluctant say so — but did admit she “worked in the press office for Sen. Cochran.”
Then we all laughed together.
Hers was probably the loneliest job in Washington, D.C.
Cochran doesn’t make pronouncements, so he doesn’t generate headlines. He’s a fine public speaker and graciously accepts many invitations. But every speech is keyed to the people he’s visiting and what they’re up to. “I” is seldom heard. Some people in public office are notoriously longwinded. Cochran measures his words, uses them sparingly — as if they’ve been rationed.
Nominally, Cochran is a Republican. In fact he was among the party pioneers breaking up the “Solid South,” where Democrats were elected to every office from governor to dog catcher.
His sixth, six-year term ends when 2014 does, so those who follow politics have been wondering aloud whether he’ll seek a seventh. As this is being written, he hasn’t said whether he plans to be on the ballot next November, but a campaign fund for the “silent senator” is open and active.
Naturally, many are also asking, “If ‘Thad’ doesn’t run, who will?” We’ll leave that for another day. For now, let’s question what makes the ‘silent senator’ a shoo-in every term.
The answer — the most plausible scenario — requires some understanding of Washington’s processes.
People call Cochran the king of “pork.” When earmarks were at their peak, Cochran was at the top of the list — willing to attach his name to federal grants nationwide as well as dozens upon dozens in Mississippi. This flowed, quite naturally, from his seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Cochran has been chair of the “money committee” when Republicans were in the majority; vice-chair when Democrats have been in control. From all appearances, he understood early-on how the pendulum swings. If he expected Mississippi to be treated kindly when Democrats were in charge, he had be kind when Democrats were in charge.
Another aspect — very important — is that the merit of the project mattered more than which party got credit (or took the blame).
The strength of hard-core conservatives in Mississippi is hard to gauge, but if there’s a challenge to Cochran next year, it’s more likely to come from the far right than the left. And the simple reason is that Cochran doesn’t mouth off about Democrats in order to gain support. When he makes statements, as he did last year, that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were qualified to be president, well, it rankles serious “righties” seriously.
But that’s who Thad Cochran is.
He grew up in Pontotoc, son of school teachers. During his school years and his military service, it became clear he was not only very smart, but solution-oriented. Since his early years in the House, he’s been an ardent believer that government has a pivotal role in society — historic preservation, education programs, health research and initiatives — and hasn’t hesitated to assign the public purse to hundreds of projects. To some that makes him a “big-spender.” That means if he seeks a new term and if he draws opposition, the only serious challenge could come from the right. And here’s a prediction: They know better.
Thad Cochran was born on Dec. 7, 1937, meaning Pearl Harbor was attacked the day he turned 4. If he seeks and serves out a seventh term, he will be 83 when it ends and will have spent 42 years in the Senate, preceded by six in the House.
Mississippians are fine with that. Seniority works for small states. We may not like “career politicians,” but we like Thad Cochran.