When Jeff Merkley began his rookie session last year in the Senate, all looked bright for his fellow Democrats.
The Democrats had huge majorities in the 111th Congress and were riding Barack Obama's historic win of the White House. But as Merkley nears the end of his first session, polls show Obama's stock falling and suggest potentially heavy Democratic losses this November.
Last week, Merkley stopped by WW to talk about his first months in Congress—from Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) telling him "tough shit" in a fight over unemployment benefits to the passage of healthcare reform and the war in Afghanistan.
As always, the former Oregon House Speaker was measured and earnest. But Merkley, who has four years to go before his re-election, expressed frustration with a Senate gridlocked by rules requiring a supermajority of 60 senators to end debate and move legislation.
WW: You were quoted recently in The New Yorker saying you wince when you hear the Senate called the world's greatest deliberative body because any genuine exchange of ideas is so limited.
Sen. Jeff Merkley: I am extremely frustrated with the Senate. A number of things did get done before we had the impasse on health care. But the fact that a supermajority is needed for everything to proceed [in 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes to shut off debate from two-thirds to 60]…I don't think our nation is well served by that or that it produces better legislation. There are a group of us in the freshman class working on that when we come in for the next two-year term….
Why do you think the air has gone out of Obama's balloon in the polls?
The set of cards he was dealt are very tough. You have the two wars, and a complete meltdown of the economy triggered entirely by the house of cards it was built with—predatory mortgages and securities based on those mortgages. And those were the consequences of deregulation during the previous decade. People want to see instantaneous solutions. And these things don't get reversed and fixed overnight.
So why aren't Democrats making a stronger push to get out of Afghanistan?
We should absolutely be pursuing an exit strategy. I went over in February to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. I had a lot of concerns that were reinforced by that trip. One is that we are not on the original mission of disabling al-Qaida. We won that mission. Al-Qaida has less than 100 people in Afghanistan. But our mission morphed into state-building, and there are enormous problems with that. I went to the border to the north and was being briefed about police training. An American came up to me afterwards and said, "Senator. The police are thugs. We train them and we equip them, and now they are trained and equipped thugs." The corruption is rampant. I also met with six Pashtun tribal leaders. And their commentary was, everyone who's appointed by the government is an affliction.
So why aren't Democrats making a stronger push to get out?
There is a general majority sense at this point that the president's plan has to be given a chance.
You don't share that stance?
When you go around Oregon, where does the war rank in terms of people's issues?
I've had 65 town halls, and it's only been raised a scattering of times.
Why do you think that is?
I think Afghanistan is a long ways away and it's a complicated war. Folks aren't sure what the right answer is.
Any chance Democrats will lose their majority in the Senate?
It's not inconceivable. But I don't think that's going to happen. The estimates range from three to nine seats. I think it's going to be toward the low end of that spectrum.
Ae there points where you say the Democrats really screwed up?
Back in about May , the Health Committee felt we have to get this done by the end of June or July because the body needs to complete their work before the August recess. Basically, all other issues were pushed aside. Our failure to articulate the core concepts and have a national debate on the pieces really hurt.
You're not on the ballot this November. But if you were, would you want Obama in Oregon to campaign for you?
[Pauses five seconds] Yeah, I think so. You can tell I'm not putting a lot of energy into campaign mode or I would have thought of questions like this. If you're talking about being on the road with the general public, they're probably going to want to see Al Franken. Maybe that's the answer, now that I think about it.