MERIDIAN, Miss.—My question was simple, but it wasn't clear Senator Thad Cochran had any idea what I was talking about. Why, I wanted to know, did he think Mississippi needed him in the U.S. Senate?
"I think my service in the House of Representatives and Senate have shown the kind of senator I'll continue to be, trying to work to help create opportunities for new and better-paying jobs for more and more Americans," Cochran, a slight, soft-spoken 76-year-old whose white hair flops across his forehead, told me. "To do this, we've got to have good working relationships with the international community, trying to contribute through our politics to peace and security. Prosperity exists because we do have peace and security."
Cochran's critics, I noted, believe things aren't going so well and Washington needs to be shaken up. He did not seem to agree. "I think it's a good, competitive environment, where the best ideas emerge and end up being approved by Congress and enacted into law," he said. "I think our system is designed to help us do that and to continue to be successful when we're competing with a lot of economies that don't have the capacity to grow and prosper as we do."
Defeating Cochran, who has been in Washington for 41 years, has emerged as the top priority of the right wing of the Republican Party this year, and it's not hard to see why. Mild-mannered to the point of self-effacement, Cochran seems to have as much fighting spirit as a guppy. He told the Washington Post last week that he would have preferred to retire—"I thought I'd served long enough"—but "people were saying, what are we going to do without you?” In that interview and others, he has often seemed confused. Asked about the national debt, he wandered off on a tangent about free trade.