Ted Kaufman, the Temporary Senator

Ted Kaufman never wanted to be a Senator. Maybe that's why he was so good at it

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Ted Kaufman and bull

A few hours after Christine O'Donnell, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Delaware, learned, to her surprise, in the midst of a debate, that the U.S. Constitution contains a provision that separates church and state, I sat down for lunch with the man she would replace, Senator Ted Kaufman. Most Americans have never heard of this man, but they know who he is: the perpetual Hollywood political fantasy, a Mr. Smith who has gone to Washington and, freed from the shackles of electoral politics, has simply done what he thinks is right. Kaufman was appointed to fill out Joe Biden's Senate term in 2009. He wasn't a complete political virgin: he was a former Biden chief of staff. The conventional wisdom was that he was a placeholder for the next Biden, Joe's son Beau, who was serving as Delaware's attorney general. "That's baloney," Kaufman told me, only he didn't use the word baloney. The younger Biden hadn't decided whether to make the race. "But it is true that I was never going to run for re-election. Why? Because I'm 71 years old. I figured that if I tried to run, it would consume 50% to 60% of my time. I would never have gotten the chance to actually be a United States Senator."

Not that Kaufman ever wanted to be a Senator. "It's like volleyball," he said. "There are setters and spikers. The chief of staff is a setter, putting the ball in the air so the Senator can spike it. I never had any desire to be a spiker. But I was wrong. I've really loved being a Senator." Rather quickly, Kaufman developed a reputation as an extraordinary member of that body — literally, since he is the only U.S. Senator to have worked as an engineer (he also has an MBA), and figuratively, since his lack of ambition liberated him to tackle some of the more abstruse aspects of crucial issues like the war in Afghanistan (he focused on coordinating the civilian aspects of the surge), financial regulation and education, specifically the need to produce more scientists, engineers and mathematicians. "I became an engineer because of Sputnik," he said. "The President [Eisenhower] called on us to catch up to the Russians in space. The funny thing is, in those days, the kids who weren't smart enough to become scientists and engineers became business majors. Now you have 11% of MIT's engineering graduates going to work on Wall Street."

Indeed, Kaufman has spent a great deal of his time in the Senate trying to make the world less profitable for Wall Street speculators, working on the nuts and bolts of financial regulatory reform. When I mentioned that many people thought that work was doomed to failure, since the wizards will always find their way around the rules, Kaufman exploded, "Baloney!" Only he didn't say that. "That is the stupidest argument. It's like saying you don't put cops in the toughest neighborhoods because there's always going to be crime there. We need cops on the street, on Wall Street. Good cops, like the ones in the current Justice Department, Securities and Exchange Commission and FBI. Our problem was that the cops weren't doing their job. They'd stopped regulating — not just on Wall Street but also food and drugs and in the mining and drilling sector. Look what happened in the Gulf."

Still, Kaufman nearly voted against the financial-reform bill because it placed too heavy a burden on regulators. Fifteen years ago, the top six banks had assets worth about 17% of GDP, he said. "Do you know what the figure is now? Sixty-three percent." Kaufman wanted to break up those banks. He also wanted a complete reseparation of commercial and investment banking — the return to Glass-Steagall rules — which didn't happen. "These people nearly collapsed the world economy," he said. "Congress needed to pass the laws that would specifically prevent certain kinds of behavior, but instead we kicked it back to the regulators. What happens if Lawrence Kudlow becomes President?" he added, referring to the libertarian Wall Street bloviator. "It's hard to look the American people in the eye and say we did our job."

In the Hollywood fantasy, Mr. Smith goes to Washington and flagrantly fights corruption. That's also the current Tea Party fantasy: people like Christine O'Donnell, armored only in ignorance, will go rogue and shake up the system. Talking to Kaufman, I realized that what Washington really needs is the exact opposite: people with expertise who take the system seriously — who know that it will always be flawed, that there will always be crime in the tough neighborhoods but are willing to struggle to make things better. I suggested to Kaufman that the President should hire him to keep working on these issues. "No. No! Please don't write that." "Why not?" I asked. "I'm old. I don't have the energy," he said. "Baloney," I replied, only I used another word. "Tough luck, Senator." So, Mr. President, if you're reading this, you need to pass the Ted Kaufman Employment Act. Hire this man.