o say that I like, appreciate and admire U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran is a gross understatement. I think the majority of Mississippians — rich and poor, black and white, Democrat and Republican — share my affection for the senator.
Quiet, thoughtful, extremely intelligent and possessed of that rare ability to disagree agreeably, Cochran broke the mold of loud, bellicose Southern demagogues and effectively conducted his 46 years of service to the people of Mississippi on Capitol Hill as what Time Magazine cogently called in 2006 “the quiet persuader.”
In an article identifying Cochran as among America’s best senators, Time observed of our state’s senior senator, then fresh from literally saving Mississippi and the rest of Gulf Coast by wrestling a $29 billion Hurricane Katrina relief package from his Senate colleagues:
“As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which decides how Congress doles out money, Cochran wields considerable power on Capitol Hill, particularly on budget issues. But along with that post, Cochran has gained the trust of the Administration and Capitol Hill for his quiet, courtly manner that is evident whether he is playing the piano in his office or using his experience and mastery of the issues to persuade his colleagues privately rather than making demands on them in public. ‘I don’t call lots of news conferences,’ Cochran says. ‘I just don’t see that as a necessary part of my responsibilities.’”
Cochran’s consummate skill in directing congressional earmarks back to Mississippi to benefit his constituents led in great measure to the political alley mugging that was the 2014 Republican U.S. Senate primary in Mississippi. In that race, voters easily influenced by dubious claims that truly complex problems like the future fiscal viability of Social Security and Medicare, the provision of public health care, the national defense, immigration, and other serious questions of public policy can be effortlessly solved by sprinkling some magic foo-foo dust called “freedom” and “liberty” on them.
That group of ideological purity zealots also like to throw around Ronald Reagan’s name and quotations when it suits them and label themselves “Reagan Republicans.” But they never burden themselves with the fact that Reagan, like Thad Cochran, grew up as a New Deal Democrat. Cochran converted to the GOP in 1968 running the Nixon campaign in Mississippi.
To that end in the 2014 primary, Cochran was assailed as a liberal and was targeted by “Astroturf” (you know, fake grass roots) political action committee spending that saw groups like Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, and Freedom Works spend millions trying to unseat the veteran senator. In Mississippi, outside spending accounted for about $12 million of a $20 million campaign.
Revisionist history of Cochran’s supposed “liberalism” aside, it almost worked. State Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville came from near anonymity statewide to within a half-percent of the vote of unseating Cochran. Like a bad penny, McDaniel’s back in 2018 and still dispensing the magic foo-foo dust — but still no substantive policy offerings. Just more “freedom” and “liberty.”
One policy area in which Cochran battled the “freedom” and “liberty” crowd successfully was in the battle over the 2013 federal farm bill. The Tea Party wanted to break the nation’s food stamp program or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program away from the farm bill. Doing so made food stamps more politically vulnerable.
So Cochran made himself more politically vulnerable — as the senior senator from the poorest state in the union — by using his clout on Capitol Hill to scuttle that effort.
Why? There are places in Mississippi where without food stamps, grocery stores would close and food would be scarce for people who can’t afford to drive to buy it. Some 20.8 percent of Mississippians are food insecure, 19.4 percent of Mississippi households utilize food stamps, and 36 percent of those SNAP recipients are in working families.
Age and failing health finally took their toll on Thad Cochran. It’s time for him to come home. But his courage, compassion and character endure and he deserves our thanks for his service.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.