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The Political Calculus of Dodd’s Decision

In the wake of Kennedy’s death, speculation about whether Chris Dodd will take over the chairmanship of the HELP committee has already begun. Dodd, who served as acting chair during Kennedy’s absence, must decide whether he will relinquish his leadership of the Banking Committee to take the helm of HELP. His choice is drawing lots of attention--not only because of the ripple effect it will have in terms of Senate committee leadership (see our flowchart gaming out the possibilities), but also because of Dodd’s current political predicament in Connecticut. Sam Caligiuri, one of the GOP contenders for the seat, called on Dodd to turn down the HELP chairmanship. “He should be finishing the job he has barely started of fixing the financial sector problems that got us into this economic disaster in the first place, and not spending his time promoting ill advised health care legislation,” Caligiuri told reporters yesterday, warning that Dodd would be trying to “dust his past failures under the rug” if he left the Banking Committee.

Certainly, Dodd’s greatest political vulnerability is the perception that he is too cozy with deep-pocketed interests and can’t be trusted, as evidenced by the latest poll of Connecticut voters. (55 percent don’t believe that he’s trustworthy.) But presiding over the passage of Obama’s financial regulatory reform package as the Banking chairman won’t necessarily be the road to redemption. But I agree with Noam and other observers who fear that the reforms may not go far enough to prevent another crisis from happening. By the time the bill comes to the Banking Committee, such criticisms that the reform package isn’t going far enough will invariably resurface. And no matter how much he may rail against granting greater authority to the Fed, it still seems unlikely that Dodd will be able to transform himself into an economic populist at the end of the day, given such constraints. His TV ad campaign to portray himself as the scourge of lobbyists hasn’t seemed to dispel concerns about his ties to the industry. And though the Senate Ethics Committee has cleared Dodd of any wrongdoing in his mortgage dealings with Countrywide, it isn’t the only concern that voters have about his ethics and priorities as a legislator. Staying on the Banking Committee may simply give his opponents a prime opportunity to exploit his biggest weaknesses. In contrast, health care is a classically Democratic issue that resonates strongly with Dodd’s base of support in Connecticut. Even if a watered-down version of the health reform bill is all that passes, Dodd can point to his stalwart defense of the HELP committee’s version of the bill—and say that he went down fighting for Kennedy’s liberal ambitions.