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Dodd as Icarus

At noon today, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), from his home on Main Street in East Haddam, officially announced his retirement from Congress at the end of the year. For the five-term senator, it wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Though his father was a prominent U.S. senator, Dodd packaged himself as a friend of the underdog. He spent two years in the Peace Corps, where he became fluent in Spanish. And he stormed to Congress in 1974 on the wings of the backlash against Watergate — a movement that brought a number of liberal lawmakers to Washington bearing the message that the city had grown corrupt, that lawmakers were too distant from the people. For Dodd, the wave of that populist image would carry him for more than three decades: He never received less than 56 percent of the vote in his five Senate races. He won the last contest in 2004 with more than 66 percent.

And if he had remained content as the senior senator from Connecticut, those approval numbers might have continued into this year. But he didn’t, instead announcing his candidacy for president three years ago this month.

“I know how to do this,” he said at the time. “I know what has to be done.”

Later in 2007, he moved his family to Iowa in hopes that the strategy would lend an advantage in the state’s important caucus — a tactic indicative of just how badly he wanted the White House, but one that also distanced him from the people of Connecticut. Then the money started pouring in from Wall Street — and it didn’t help that, as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd was on the campaign trail through much of 2008 as the economy was toppling under the weight of Wall Street’s collapse.

Then came more revelations of Dodd’s connections to the banking industry. In summer of 2008, Portfolio magazine reported that Dodd had been given preferential rates when he refinanced two mortgages through Countrywide Financial. In February of last year, the Hartford Courant uncovered that another industry connection had yielded Dodd a sweetheart deal on a vacation cottage in Ireland. One month later, he was embroiled in the AIG bonus scandal — and it didn’t matter that it was the White House, not Dodd, that was culpable for allowing those bonuses to be paid. The populist champion was morphing into a baron of industry. The pendulum shift was tangible, and the press (and Republicans) pounced.

The cumulative effect of the last three years has been this: Dodd’s Republican challengers have pummeled him in recent polls. And although Dodd claimed today that those figures had noting to do with his decision not to run for reelection, they certainly didn’t encourage him either.

“I’m proud of the job I’ve done and the results delivered,” Dodd said today. “But none of us are irreplaceable. None of us are indispensable. Those who think otherwise are dangerous.”

The populist came back, a little too late.

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