Senator Cochran Can Leave with Head High


It’s likely that the departure of Thad Cochran from the U.S. Senate is going to generate more news about the political jockeying to replace him than the service he gave to Mississippi over nearly half a century in Washington.

Before we spend too much ink speculating over what Chris McDaniel will now do and whom Gov. Phil Bryant might appoint to Cochran’s soon-to-be-vacant seat, it is only fitting to spend a little time reflecting on Cochran’s noble tenure in Congress.

Cochran, who announced Monday his long-anticipated decision to retire, was not the typical Mississippi politician.

He was not a great or charismatic orator.

He did not seek the limelight, nor did he have much stomach for power politics — an aversion that at one point in his career allowed a more ambitious junior senator, Trent Lott, to leap-frog him on the Republican leadership ladder.

What Cochran was good at was treating his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle with dignity and respect.

He knew how to build consensus and reach across party lines.

He made few enemies in Washington or in Mississippi.  He represented his home state with honor.

When he worked his way into committee chairmanships, he made sure that Mississippi got treated well when Congress was doling out funding for farmers, colleges and universities, highways and airports, and military hardware.

 Ironically, in his next-to-last term in office, the tea party movement turned this “bring home the bacon” strength of Cochran’s into a liability, labeling him as a big spender, even though Mississippi had benefited richly from the billions of dollars that Cochran steered its way for decades. 

The ultraconservative movement, with McDaniel at its head, came within a whisker of unseating Cochran in the 2014 GOP primary and only failed to do so because of the incumbent’s support within the black community, which appreciated the senator’s work over the years on behalf of the state’s historically black colleges and universities.

Almost from the moment that Cochran won that tough re-election contest, it was doubtful he would make it through the entire six years of a seventh term.

Now 80 and in poor health, he probably should have come home a decade ago, but many in this state convinced him that Mississippi couldn’t afford to lose his seniority: first because of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, then because he was in line for the second time to take over the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

It’s been said that Cochran no longer fit in Washington. His gentlemanly way seemed out of step in a place where elbows are thrown more often than handshakes are offered.

Cochran can leave office, however, with his head high that he never lowered himself to that level.