Wisconsin's David Obey becomes 18th House Democrat to pack it in this year
Veteran Wisconsin Democrat David Obey was expected to announce his retirement from the House of Representatives this morning after 20 terms representing the northern part of his state on Capitol Hill.
But the often irascible, harmonica-playing liberal 71-year-old couldn't wait. He made the announcement Wednesday afternoon instead.
"There is a time to stay and a time to go," Obey said, sounding tired. "And this is my time to go."
Walking away from what would have been the campaign fight of his long career, Obey said he had never walked away from a campaign fight in his long career.
But as Andrew Taylor of the Associated Press points out, Obey's repeated election successes, including three state Assembly terms, have also made him "a symbol of entrenched incumbency that's falling out of favor with discontented voters" this year.
Obey, who was once expelled from Catholic school for punching a nun, would have had to defend his liberal spending record and his vote for President Obama's controversial, expensive healthcare bill in a time of stubbornly high unemployment, exploding deficits and likely tax hikes. He was once quoted as referring to the new president as the "crown prince."
The most likely opponent for the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman -- but now someone else -- is a 38-year-old, aggressive Republican county prosecutor named Sean Duffy. He's already received the backing of numerous Washington party activists, Tea Party supporters and Sarah Palin in the state's Sept. 14 primary.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Obey's retirement next January "a big loss for us." For her too; Obey and the late John Murtha were two of her most powerful lieutenants.
Obey's departure prompted political forecasters to move Wisconsin's Seventh District into the toss-up category from the Democratic gimme it's been for two generations. And it also raised spirits among Republicans as a signal that such a powerful Democratic chairman might be detecting some November political handwriting that he was about to lose his chair. And, thus, opt to go out on top.
Despite easy and repeated re-elections over the years, Obey's recent poll numbers showed him to be vulnerable in the current anti-incumbent political environment when the word Congress has become another eight-letter barnyard epithet.
Obey gained the seat for his party (on an anti-Vietnam War platform) in a 1969 special election after GOP Rep. Melvin Laird resigned to become newly-elected President Richard Nixon's secretary of Defense.
Obey voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002 when it was a Republican idea, then backed Obama's Afghan troop surge, along with a requirement for progress reports to Congress this year.
Obey becomes the 18th Democrat and 37th representative to retire this year rather than endure what's shaping up as an expensive, rancorous autumn midterm election, the first of Obama's administration. Historically, such elections see the White House party lose on average 16 House seats, unless the new president's name is George W. Bush or Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Obey said he did not know what he would do next, but admitted he was "bone-tired." The chief legislative designer of last year's $787 billion stimulus spending bill, Obey said Wednesday his only regret is that it wasn't larger.
Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images; WisconsinGoods.com