Strange Bedfellow

How to Appear Thoughtful

Lessons from Sen. Bob Torricelli.

At the height of his Hamlet act over whether to vote for the balanced-budget amendment, Robert Torricelli, the first-term Democratic senator from New Jersey, gave an interview to the New York Times. “I understand this will be one of the most important votes I ever cast,” he told the paper. “I’m taking an extraordinary amount of time talking about it.” Now, another senator might have noted that he was spending a lot of time thinking about the issue, perhaps, or listening to the arguments on both sides. But this is the Torch, remember–who, in just a couple of months, has distinguished himself as the member of the upper chamber most in love with the sound of his own voice. When you consider that his colleagues include Robert Byrd and Joe Biden, that is really something.

Torricelli might be a blowhard, but he isn’t dumb. After 14 years in the House, he seems to have figured out in a hurry how this Senate thing works. “I didn’t get here by design,” he told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 26. He was referring to his role as the decision maker on the balanced-budget amendment, which is set to fail by one vote early next week. This claim of guilelessness was instantaneously belied by Torricelli’s suggestion that he and three other Democratic “undecideds” had the narrow defeat of the bill. But Torricelli’s accomplishment was more than just manipulating the timing of his announcement to make himself the center of media attention. He also showed how easy it is in Washington to cultivate the appearance of thoughtfulness without doing a minute’s worth of actual thinking.

The challenge of looking like a soul-searching statesman was made harder by Torricelli’s previous record on the issue. As a member of the House, he had voted in favor of the balanced-budget amendment, in the same version he now opposes, three different times. During his recent campaign, he said in unequivocal terms that he was in favor of the amendment, donning his record on the issue as a Kevlar shield against the charge that he was a fiscally irresponsible liberal. So his first order of business in the Senate was to begin to lay the groundwork for a flip-flop. Torricelli didn’t do anything so dramatic as to say he might have been wrong in the past. Instead, he reinterpreted his past position as semaphore. He wasn’t really voting to amend the Constitution at the time. He was trying to send a “message” about fiscal irresponsibility to various presidents and to Congress. (When I conked you over the head with that frying pan, I was merely indicating my concern.) Never mind that Torricelli was in the House himself, being as fiscally irresponsible as the next guy. In Congress, people send messages to themselves all the time.

The second step is the fun part: agonizing in public. The national grandmaster of this technique is still the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. But in the Senate, the great role model is, who held a national dialogue with himself in 1993 before finally choosing to cast the deciding vote in favor of the first Clinton economic plan. But Kerrey carries off indecision better than Torricelli does, because with him, it’s not an act. He is truly, paralytically ambivalent, perpetually ruminating about whether he should run for president even while running for president in 1992. Torricelli was merely feigning indecision when he gave interviews to the New York Times and National Public Radio the week before last saying how seriously he took the arguments on both sides, and how impressed he was with the deep consideration of important issues that took place in the Senate.

S tep 3 is negotiating with the folks who need your vote. At this stage, you are the most popular guy in town. The president invites you over to watch the Super Bowl. His aides respond to your smallest hint with servile alacrity. “David Broder, calling for you on Line 1.” And so forth. Being the swing vote means you can ask for the moon and stars–but you can’t ask for pork if you want to be seen as a deep thinker. Demanding a bridge as your price would be tacky, especially in exchange for killing off a big-ticket fiscal-austerity measure. (Six months down the road, you can ask for all the post offices you want.) More dignified is to ask for some kind of commission. In 1993, Kerrey got a commission on entitlements in exchange for his vote on the budget. Torricelli had been expressing concern about the lack of capital budgeting–the inability, under our system of federal accounting, to spread out the costs of “investment” expenditure. Presto: After a conversation with the president, in which Torricelli made clear his intention on the vote, the White House announced the formation of a capital-budget commission to examine this important issue. Click to have Slate’s editor explain what’s wrong with Torricelli’s capital-budget idea.

The final step is coming up with a pretext for your decision. Tim Johnson of South Dakota used the possibility of Social Security cuts to justify his flip-flop several days earlier, but that was just to bear the weight of another senator, even a light one. So Torricelli took a different tack, objecting to the Republican version of the amendment because it didn’t contain any provision for the above-mentioned capital budget, and proposing an amendment to the amendment to provide for one, pending the report of the Torch Commission. The merits of that issue aside, this was an absurd proposal in the context of debate about a balanced-budget amendment. Balanced budgets and capital budgets are contradictory ideas. Being against the former because it doesn’t provide for the latter is like saying you don’t like a house because it doesn’t have wheels.

After the amendment’s sponsor, Orrin Hatch of Utah, refused to accept this change, Torricelli took the “Sorry, wish I could help” line. “I need the gentleman from Utah to explain to me how a generation unborn in circumstances unforeseen will deal with renewed military hostilities, a deep recession, or the problem of declining economic competitiveness.” Nice bit of ask-notting, that “generation unborn in circumstances unforeseen.” Reverse word order will get you everywhere in the Senate. After his endless speech on the Senate floor in defense of our founding “ancestors,” Torricelli repaired to the Senate radio and TV gallery to continue his monologue. “I have struggled with this decision more than any … I have ever made in my life,” Torricelli said. Chins were stroked. Editorials were penned, hailing the decision. A strange new mantle of respect descended on Bob Torricelli.

Of course, truly thoughtful senators don’t go in for this kind of rigmarole. Take the now-retired Paul Simon of Illinois, who took a courageous position in support of the balanced-budget amendment and held to it consistently–even in 1995, when the Democrats were one vote short, and wouldn’t have succeeded in defeating the amendment without the help of Republican Mark Hatfield. I think Simon was wrong on the merits, but I never questioned his sincerity on the issue. Or take Torricelli’s predecessor, Bill Bradley. Bradley took the same position that Torricelli did on the balanced-budget amendment after actually thinking about it, and without making a fuss.

But quiet contemplation is not Torricelli’s métier. To quote again from the pre-decision piece in the Times:

After a long discourse on the ins and outs of his vote, Mr. Torricelli drops a hint that when it matters, he will not desert his party. “The U.S. needs to determine a proper level of debt,” he said, “and it’s possible several members could emerge to use votes on this to force new creative talking.”

Or, more creatively yet, maybe one new senator could just stop talking for a while.