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On The Meaning of Jim Bunning

Jim Bunning announced his retirement last week, and I wrote a quick post noting his pending departure. At first, I didn’t think much of the news: Elder senator retires, creating open seat, yada yada, ho hum. Aside from the reports about his lucidity and the recent spat he had with his fellow Kentucky Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, I can’t remember him making much if any news. There thus didn’t seem to be much meaning to Bunning’s retirement beyond the simple storyline of man who followed 17 distinguished seasons as a baseball great with 24 rather undistinguished years in Congress before hanging up his cleats, so to speak.

I’m not attempting now to assign his political career or pending retirement any more importance than it deserves; Jim Bunning is no leading light in national politics or Republican Party circles. And that’s just my point: Jim Bunning’s long but undistinguished career in national politics is more meaningful than a cursory review suggests.

Bunning arrived in Washington in 1986, winning despite a bad Republican cycle that year. After 12 years in the House, Bunning won a senate seat in 1998–another bad midterm cycle for Republicans, despite bold predictions to the contrary by Newt Gingrich, whose meteoric speakership became the most notable casualty of the GOP’s House losses that year. Aside from his counter-trend victories, it’s hard to find much about Bunning’s career arc that stands out from the typical political arc of a Republican member of Congress during the course of the past quarter century.

Of course, the country has changed a lot since 1986, and even since 1998. By 2009, those changes reduced Bunning to an old, white southern man in a party that the national media today has finally recognized–despite early warning signals from some, including yours truly–is slowly yet avoidably retrenched into an older, whiter, southern and male-dominated rump party. Bunning didn’t arrive in Washington in January 1987, or to the Senate in January 1999, bursting with new ideas or a new agenda; he was instead something of a placemarker Republican who relied upon tired, retreaded, anti-government policy prescriptions and culture-war themes, both of which have lost significant traction in the decade since his rise to the Senate.

His governing legacy? Well, now. Perhaps I have overlooked something—and readers should pipe up—but internet searches and even a perusal of his official website reveal no major policy accomplishment of note. There is no Gramm-Rudman-Bunning or Bunning-Feingold Act. Nor, if memory serves, was the former pitching great a particularly prominent voice during the debates leading up to the Iraq war vote or as an advocate on behalf of George W. Bush’s income tax cut agenda. He did, of course, serve on the baseball-steroids panel, a good fit for a backbench legislator and former star major-leaguer. A few years ago, Time magazine called him an “underperformer” and rated him among the five worst senators. Whatever one thinks of their motives and methods, in far shorter Senate stints both of South Carolina’s senators, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, have done more to distinguish themselves. (I would regret not pausing here to applaud Sen. Graham on his courageous, principled Judiciary Committee vote to recommend Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.) One wonders how many politically-informed people, without any hints, can even identify the junior senator from Kentucky by name. As for those who do know him well, at home in Kentucky his approval ratings are positively Dick Cheney-esque.

In sum, as a senator Bunning has been largely invisible beyond casting a reliably partisan vote. He has provided no energy or new ideas for a party that quickly ran out of energy and new ideas earlier this decade. He didn’t express any unusual outrage about the excesses or blunders of the Bush Administration. He didn’t offer the promise of attracting any new voter blocs to the party’s declining demographic base. He provided little to no national media presence for conservatives during the past decade, a time when liberals were gaining tactical and message ground in the media, especially online. And, although I’m no expert on Kentucky politics, so far as I can tell Bunning won’t leave behind much of a political legacy or a pack of promising protégés in his home state, where he is rather unpopular.

I’m not trying to kick a man when he’s down and soon to be out; my intent here is not to personally indict Jim Bunning, Hall of Fame pitcher and retiring Republican senator from Kentucky. What I am saying is that in so many ways, Bunning’s political career and pending retirement is symptomatic of the larger problems presently facing conservatism and the Republican Party nationally: a grumpy, searching, direction-less, leadership-deficient, infighting band of naysayers offering few new ideas, too much feigned outrage, and opposition largely for opposition’s sake—all as they steadily lose their grasp on the attentions and imaginations of the American public.

With almost daily developments in the story of Michael Jackson’s death and the Gates-Crowley-Obama drama–not to mention the national debate over health care–Bunning’s retirement is a second-page story at best. But there are page one implications of his career, and its end, in regard to the state of national politics, especially on the Right and within the Republican Party. Enjoy your retirement, Senator.