With the Senate primary elections over, Iowans face the decision between Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democrat Admiral Mike Franken. There will be time between now and November for Admiral Franken to try to convince Iowans that his record of military service would make him a valuable addition to the Senate. But even before that, the basic decision should be faced squarely: whether to give Sen. Grassley, who has already served 42 years in the Senate, another six-year term.
Grassley’s decision to run again at age 88 is not quite completely unprecedented, but it is highly unusual. Senators, of course, are not term limited, but Senate history shows a strong pattern. Howard Baker of Tennessee, the universally admired Republican leader, retired after three terms (18 years). Mike Mansfield of Montana, the universally admired Democratic leader, retired after four terms (24 years). For decades, many respected senators reached essentially the same conclusion. Those who retired after three terms included Republicans John Danforth, Alan Simpson, Trent Lott, Lamar Alexander, Nancy Kassebaum, William Cohen, and Olympia Snowe, and Democrats Bill Bradley, Howell Heflin, Abraham Ribicoff, David Pryor, and David Boren. Those who retired after four terms included Republicans Mike Enzi, Pat Roberts, and Don Nickles, and Democrats Sam Nunn, Joseph Lieberman, Dale Bumpers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Barbara Boxer, Alan Cranston, and Kent Conrad.
Some senators served longer; even as the Senate became increasingly dysfunctional, many senators stayed for five terms (30 years). But the retirement decisions of those senators also fall into a pattern. As they approached the thirty-year mark, usually in their late 70s or age 80, they realized that it was time to leave, rather than commit to a year of campaigning and then six more years in the Senate. Iowa’s Tom Harkin made that choice at age 75. Others in this category include Republicans John Warner, Mark Hatfield, and Jesse Helms, and Democrats Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Jeff Bingaman, and Patrick Leahy (who is retiring at 80, after seven terms.). These men and women understood that part of their responsibility, to their states and the nation, was to know when to step aside and let the torch of leadership pass to a younger person.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but generally they end badly. Carl Hayden, at 91, mistook a phone booth for an elevator, walked in, and said: “Down.” Robert Byrd, one of the greatest senators, who was a powerful opponent of the Iraq War at the age of 85, became a shadow of himself before dying in office at 92. Strom Thurmond, who died in office at 100, was a joke and an embarrassment; virtually unable to speak or hear, he had to be carried into committee meetings. More recently, Dianne Feinstein chose to run at age 85, won another term, and tarnished her storied career; her decision to run is regarded by her friends and admirers as a tragic mistake.
Fully aware of these examples, good and bad, Sen. Grassley decided that seven terms are not enough for him. He apparently cannot conceive of life without being in the Senate, or regards himself as indispensable, or both, but his decision clearly shows egregiously bad judgment, which is not going to improve between ages 89 and 95.
It is possible that, deep down, Sen. Grassley knows what he should have done, but was prevailed upon to run one more time by Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Grassley has sacrificed his independent judgment before at McConnell’s request. In July 2020, with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ill-health, Grassley said that if he were still chairing the Judiciary Committee, he would not take up a nomination to the Supreme Court just weeks before a presidential election. But after Justice Ginsburg’s death, since he was no longer chairman, Grassley cast a decisive vote in ramming through Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation eight days before Election Day. Despite his stature and experience, Grassley did something he knew to be wrong, which had profound consequences for the Senate, the Court, and the American people.
As a former Senate staffer and now a Senate historian, I’m one of many Democrats who has admired Sen. Grassley’s cantankerous independence over the years. But he has already had the extraordinary privilege of being a United States senator for forty-two years— more than five times longer than the eight years that any president is allowed to serve. Retiring honorably after having served long and well, as Sen. Harkin or former Republican Gov. Bob Ray did, should have been an easy call for Grassley. The fact that he couldn’t do it calls to mind one of the most familiar cries in politics: “Time for a change.”
Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staffer and Clinton administration official, is the author of three books about the Senate. His new book is “The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.” His website is www.irashapiroauthor.com.