The Torch flames out

October 02, 2002

DON'T LET THE righteous tears fool you. Or Sen. Robert G. Torricelli's claims that he was making a noble sacrifice in withdrawing from his hopelessly tarnished bid for re-election so that his party might pick another candidate.

Mr. Torricelli is neither a selfless man nor a slave to the truth. The New Jersey Democrat is said by Washington insiders to be leaving now to preserve whatever future remains to him in politics or as a lobbyist. If he had insisted on remaining in the race and helped the Republicans reclaim the Senate majority, the doors of his former Democratic colleagues would likely have been forever closed to him.

But his gesture may have been too little, too late, and could result in consequences that will shape the national agenda for years to come.

The Democrats have only a one-vote margin of control in the Senate. Yet it is their bulwark against the Bush administration and the Republican-led House. A handful of other senators in both parties are also facing tight re-election bids, but a Democratic loss in New Jersey could easily be the one that tips the balance.

Mr. Torricelli could have helped his party avoid a legal fight over putting the name of a new candidate on the ballot by simply resigning his seat. New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey then could have named a replacement who could campaign as the Democratic candidate even though Mr. Torricelli's name remained on the ballot.

Better yet, Mr. Torricelli could have made it easier on his party by giving up the fight earlier. But the politician dubbed "The Torch" for his aggressive, street-fighter style refused to acknowledge his plunging popularity with the same vehemence that he protested his innocence.

Even after he was rebuked in July by the Senate Ethics Committee for taking lavish gifts from a businessman seeking government favors, the Torch continued to deny he had done anything wrong. What else to expect from a guy who once claimed to have been profoundly affected as an Italian-American child watching the 1951 Kefauver hearings on mob activities, and then barely batted an eye when told he would have been only 5 days old at the time?

This is the sad, familiar tale of a talented man responsible for his own undoing, and perhaps taking down with him some of the liberal social causes he claimed to care so much about.

The good news here is that the rules Mr. Torricelli flouted do matter. Especially in such a closely divided government, where the parties act as an additional check and balance, politicians who step over the line do so at great peril.

Dismayed voters should take heart that they really do make a difference.

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