It was annual Senate retreat time in Washington this week, a moment when senators get away from the U.S. Capitol, free themselves of their staffs and daily legislative, office and fundraising chores, and try to gain some fresh perspective.
They didn’t go far, mind you. Senate Democrats met Wednesday at Washington Nationals Park about a mile and half away from Capitol Hill, still in sight of the Rotunda. Republicans merely repaired to their usual place across the street from the Capitol, the Library of Congress.
Befitting their baseball park surroundings, Senate Democrats got visits by a couple of the party’s biggest power hitters — President Obama and former President Bill Clinton. By contrast, Republicans could be accused of playing small ball with their speakers — a think tank president and some journalists.
In any event, to get a sense of what happens at these retreats and why they’re seen as necessary, I talked separately with two former senators who used to organize their respective party’s retreats — Democrat Byron Dorgan, who represented North Dakota, and Republican Don Nickles from Oklahoma.
Both men agreed that if nothing else, the retreats are good at corralling senators in one place to get their undivided attention, however fleeting.
“It’s very hard to get senators together and really get them focused, even on Capitol Hill,” Nickles said. “If you have a meeting in the Capitol Hill building, it’s very easy for people to be distracted. Somebody’s coming in and pulling them out of meetings.
“If you have a little retreat, they usually will block out several hours,” Nickles said. “They won’t be interrupted by constituents and phone calls. It’s kind of important to have a few hours to strategize. Usually you go over your priorities.”
Nickles suspects Senate Republicans discussed ways to refine their operational strategy in a Democratic-controlled Senate where Majority Leader Harry Reid has limited the minority’s ability to block presidential nominations or offer amendments. And they may be gaming out what they’ll to if they take back control in the November elections, he said.
That it’s a midterm election year that finds four red-state Senate Democrats especially vulnerable is no doubt the elephant in the room at the Senate Democratic retreat.
“There’s always a little more intense politics in an election year,” Dorgan said. “So that’s never very far from the surface when senators get together.”
That’s especially true this year, with the controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act raising Democratic anxieties as the party tries to gain traction with a message about economic inequality.
Listening to Dorgan, you quickly sense that the Democratic retreat nowadays pales next to the ones he organized. They used to be weekend, not mid-week affairs. They would be held a couple of hours outside Washington. Families were welcome. Thought leaders gave talks that stimulated lively discussions. There was entertainment, maybe even dancing in the evenings.
“I thought they were one of the most useful things we did,” Dorgan said, adding that the gatherings were called “issues conferences. We didn’t use the word ‘retreat.’ That’s not a good word in politics.”
“Just to have some time to put some capital back in your head and to be around people, some thinkers and writers, professors and others to talk about the key issues in the country,” Dorgan said of the meetings.
They were also a good opportunity for senators to get to know each other, something that’s difficult even for members of the same party to do as they zip from meetings to floor votes in the Capitol. “It was so important because much of what happens in the Senate, even in your own party, is all about personal relationships,” Dorgan said.
While Senate Democrats have scaled back their retreats, they clearly still have an element of fun just based on the venue they chose.
Not that Republicans don’t have fun, too.
“Well, they have Al Franken [the Minnesotan and former professional comedian]. We have Pat Roberts [a droll Kansan],” Nickles said. “So there were laughs for sure.”