Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s political legacy will include a political equation that will bewilder Washington: Accomplishment + Attention = Alienation. Dodd and his circle of advisers thought his association with big, expensive pieces of legislation would persuade disenchanted Connecticut voters to embrace him. It didn’t.
Campaign polls conducted in December found him even more unpopular than jarring public surveys released in November. The most distressing discoveries: his abysmal approval/trust numbers were sinking faster than Jay Leno’s ratings from the stubborn high 30s into the chilling lower 30s.
Dodd and his many friends in Washington spent two years straining to rehabilitate him after an unbroken series of unforced errors. His disastrous run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination ended when he won 0% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. Connecticut voters had a new understanding of Emily Litella’s eternal question, “What’s all this talk about Iowa carcasses?” You don’t expect your senator to become one.
The S.S. Dodd was hit below the waterline in June 2008, when a Conde Nast Portfolio magazine story linked Dodd with a two favorable mortgages from the by then notorious Countrywide Financial as a member of founder Angelo Mozillo’s “Friends of Angelo” list. Dodd issued an angry written statement and retreated to his home on the Connecticut River. His office said he was traveling and unavailable. A local television traffic helicopter caught Dodd on his deck that afternoon, looking up into the camera.
In the 8 months that followed, Dodd refused to talk about the mortgages. He led a mortgage bailout that summer, which included a robust defense of the health of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. In October, Dodd was at the forefront in shaping the $700 billion TARP program. Puffed up Dodd delivered a vintage performance the night the bill passed the Senate, declaring the nation’s founders and forefathers would have wanted this legislation. The politician’s beloved recipe of serving heaping helpings of other people’s money couldn’t divert Connecticut voters’ attention from the story of Dodd’s sense of entitlement.
The public stirred at renewed reports that Dodd had reaped millions in campaign contributions from beneficiaries of gazillions in government money. His political prospects were now a troubled asset of a different sort.
Last February, I broke a story of Dodd reaping a financial bonanza through the murky purchase of valuable waterfront property in Ireland. It was Dodd real estate purchased with someone else who then subsidized him by contributing to the mortgage and other expenses. He bought the vacation home in 1994 with a Kansas City, Missouri, real estate developer who was a business associate of Dodd buddy and New York boulevardier Edward Downe.
Downe, who’d subsidized Dodd’s ownership of a Washington condominium in the late 1980s, was convicted of insider trading in 1993. In 2001, Dodd won a full presidential pardon for Downe as Bill Clinton was walking out of the White House. The next year, Dodd came into full ownership of the Irish property at a price far below its value.
Dodd turned the 2002 purchase price into a moving target. His spokesman told me last February Dodd paid $127,000. In March, Dodd told reporters at the Hartford Courant it was about $177,000. By spring, he was telling Newsweek he’d got it for $207,000. He’d originally reported the price to Irish authorities as $122,351.
With the public’s mood growing surly over bonuses for executives at rescued financial firms, Dodd looked frightened while offering three different explanations of the language he’d slipped into the economic stimulus bill that ratified hundreds of millions in bonuses for A.I.G. bigwigs. A.I.G employees had been generous contributors to Dodd’s campaigns. He turned to The Huffington Post to explain his wife’s earlier membership on the board of a Bermuda-based company associated with A.I.G. Polls had him losing to Republicans.
Dodd, aggrieved by voters’ hostility, turned to political pros for advice. Stories of his emotional phone calls began to circulate because, let’s face it, politics is a tough business. Scratch a resentful lickspittle and you’ll find someone with a taste for other people’s misery.
Even the approach of universal healthcare, the great lodestone, gaze toward the heavens for a moment, provided no help. Worse, in blue Connecticut, where more than 90% of residents have some type of coverage, the achievement of the dream added to Dodd’s unpopularity.
The most telling beltway blow may have landed quietly on an October night. A Dodd fundraiser sponsored by a veteran lobbyist is said to have attracted a dismal turnout of 15 people. The countdown had reached the end in the town without pity. Dodd picked Tuesday to declare the end of a campaign that had been deemed doomed months before.
Kevin Rennie writes a political column for the Sunday edition of The Hartford Courant. A lawyer and former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives and State Senate, he’s also written for The National Journal and The New York Post. He’s appeared on Fox News and CNBC.