LLOYD GRAY: Cochran and the old school

By Lloyd Gray

These must be trying days for Thad Cochran. Mississippi’s senior senator is a model of collegiality – the way the U.S. Senate used to operate – but times have changed.
Partisanship is at a peak. Across-the-aisle friendships, which once flourished, are rare by most accounts. Working with the other side to reach compromise is much less frequent, even seen as betrayal by hardliners.
Cochran is of the old school. He’s a principled conservative, moderately so by current standards, but his temperament is out of sync with the times. He can work with anyone, and has. He values relationships that span philosophical divides. He is moderate in tone, as well as political substance, and always has been.
One of his chief legislative skills through the years has been in recognizing the value of certain federal programs for Mississippi – in agriculture and education, in particular – and steering the money this way.
“Earmarks” is a dirty word in Washington nowadays, even though they have very little to do with the fiscal predicament in which we find ourselves. Cochran was a master at them, and Ole Miss and Mississippi State were among the chief beneficiaries.
In short, Cochran’s 34-year career in the Senate has been built around characteristics that were once the norm but no longer prevail in Washington. He’s 75, and the question persists: Will he retire when his current term ends in January 2015?
A fair number of potential Republican successors are anxious for that question to be answered. In recent days, Cochran indicated they’ll have to wait a while, which could be a signal itself.
He told Roll Call, a Washington publication, that he won’t make a decision until the end of this year or early in 2014. When the Daily Journal gave him the opportunity to elaborate on that statement, he declined.
That would mean his decision would come only months before the party primary. Prospective candidates would have to scramble to mount a campaign.
U.S. Senate openings in Mississippi are extremely rare. The seat Cochran holds has changed hands only once in the last 70 years – when he was elected in 1978 to succeed the retiring James O. Eastland. He was the first Republican in modern times to win a statewide election after having served six years in the U.S. House.
Mississippi’s other Senate seat was held by only two men – John C. Stennis and Trent Lott – for 60 years before Lott’s surprising early-term resignation in 2007. That opening was filled by Gov. Haley Barbour’s appointment of Roger Wicker, so it really didn’t count as a full-blown political opportunity for a wide field once Barbour’s choice was made.
Some potential Cochran successors, such as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, are young enough to be able to wait another six years for their shot. But there are surely others who would prefer the seat be open in 2014.
Cochran, however, will take his time. He’ll continue to operate in his “affable” way, as the Roll Call article about his timetable described him. Affability is a quality in short supply in Washington these days, and it is needed.
The Pontotoc native, Oxford resident and son of school teachers will continue to act collegially. His public statements on topical issues, while clearly stating his positions, continue to be measured in tone and absent of inflammatory rhetoric.
His approach is not politically stylish these days. But emphasis on style points over substantive accomplishment is a big reason our political system in Washington is broken. Thad Cochran, rather than a relic of a different era, is a man much needed for these times.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.