As soon as he arrived in the Senate—as soon, that is, as his record as a national politician began—Bentsen took pains to rid himself of the right-wing image the campaign had given him. In one of his first speeches as a senator, he formally rejected the Administration’s embrace, saying that he was an “establishment man” who believed in four establishments: the United States of America, the United States Senate, the State of Texas, and the Democratic party. This was the first step in a dance Bentsen has been practicing ever since: a flattering pas toward his partners on either side, a coy step back from the extreme. On nearly every issue of symbolic importance to the liberals, the constituency farthest from his natural base, Bentsen has taken a “correct” position. In his first few months in Congress, he voted to restrict the right to filibuster, one of the few Old South senators ever to do so; shortly thereafter, he fought Senator John Stennis to reduce funding for the Trident submarine. He voted against the SST, he has sponsored mass-transit legislation, and he has even taken his distance from big oil, sponsoring a variety of proposals to restrict the major companies in favor of the smaller, independent operators.
No one should imagine, Bentsen says, that this amounts to a calculated drive to the center: “It’s some of those fellows out in left field who had to move.” I asked him whom he meant. He wouldn’t say. “Gary Hart?” I asked. He gave me a small grin—a rare departure from his customary noncommittal caution. Still, it is interesting to compare Bentsen’s positions on these well-publicized issues with some of his less famous votes. Ronnie Dugger of the Texas Observer has done just that, and last September listed a dozen recent votes in which Bentsen lined up with the other senator from Texas, the extremely conservative John Tower. The votes included restoration of the death penalty (both senators for) and opening up the FBI’s files (both senators against). “We know why Tower casts such votes,” Dugger concluded, “but he is not running for the Democratic nomination for President.”
Bentsen’s smart, carefully balanced performance has not only put him in the running with a national constituency which might otherwise have considered him an uptown version of Russell Long, but also helped him to a position of some respect within the Senate. Bentsen has not, in four years’ time, become a backstage titan at the Capitol, but he has won compliments from the likes of Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (“an extremely impressive senator with a bright future”), Minority Leader Hugh Scott (“a heavyweight”), and Spencer Rich, congressional reporter for the Washington Post, who has written several flattering stories with headlines like “Soft-Spoken Bentsen Gains Wide Respect In the Senate.” The most tangible evidence of his influence occurred last summer, with the passage of the most important legislation protecting the pension rights of employees of private companies ever enacted. For years, similar bills had been approved by the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, and for years they had died in the Finance Committee, but this time Bentsen—as an insurance man, a master of the bill’s actuarial minutiae—nursed the bill through Finance to passage. In mid-1973, Bentsen’s reputation as a “workhorse” was beginning to spread among some of his fellow senators and he began entertaining the notion that 1976 might be his year. To conduct his one-year trial heat, Bentsen had two preliminary arrangements to make. The first was to find the money—$365,000, all of it raised at a $200-per-plate affair in Houston late in 1973. The second was to hire a campaign staff, now working under the direction of Ben Palumbo, a former aide to Senator Harrison Williams. With the machinery ready, Bentsen began his test campaign, setting himself four goals to reach by Election Day, 1974.
The first, according to Palumbo, was to “make the senator a familiar personality to the Democratic party structure nationally”—to expose him not to the voters, but to the party regulars. In this effort, Bentsen has made good use of his position as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which gave him an official reason to speak in each of the thirty-three states where Democrats were running for the Senate.
The second was to have the senator taken seriously by the national press. Outside his home state, Bentsen has received almost no critical coverage; recently he has been mentioned quite favorably in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and many others.
The third was to “have him become a familiar face and personality to the regional print and electronic media.” To this end Bentsen has appeared on talk shows across the country and has met for informal discussion with the editorial boards of several major papers.
Finally, Bentsen hoped to identify himself with economic issues—not in the gadfly’s role, like a Galbraith or a Proxmire, but as a solid, serious policy-maker, and as a party spokesman. Bentsen’s important breakthrough in this area occurred last July, when he convinced the Senate Democratic Policy Committee that he should give the party’s televised rebuttal to President Nixon’s economic message. It was a tub-thumping attack on Republican management of the economy, and variations on it have become his standard speech. “I want to talk about the price of food, about the cost of buying a house. About good times and bad times. In short, about our national economy, and the way it affects your household.” And so he does, conjuring up the traditional specter of the Republicans as the party of depression.
As Palumbo and his staff see it, Bentsen not only hit all four of his targets, but did so months before the deadline. Unless Bentsen is weighing factors he has not revealed, the go-ahead is certain. While none of his campaign strategists say he is going to win, several suggest how he could: Scoop Jackson will keep putting his foot in his mouth and continue to lose support; the George Wallace camp will realize that their man is a nonstarter, and will see Bentsen as their next best hope; the Kennedy voters will disperse among the candidates rather than swinging en masse to Mondale; the Mondale campaign will not catch fire; and, in the middle of a split and tumultuous convention, all eyes will turn to the cool and confident man from Texas.