“This election will make a huge difference in your lives,” the speaker said. “We must remember that the decisions we make today will affect our lives in ways we cannot even imagine. Eleven days. It’s not over. We have to put our pedal to the metal until the checkered flag is behind us.”
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse ’78, a Democrat from Rhode Island, addressed an audience hosted by the Yale College Democrats and Yale Student Environmental Coalition this Friday afternoon in the Branford common room while visiting his daughter, Mary Whitehouse ’11, for Parent’s Weekend.
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Whitehouse answered questions about his time as a member of the Special Committee on Aging, the Budget Committee, the Environmental and Public Works Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the Select Committee on Intelligence in the U.S. Senate.
Senator Whitehouse opened his talk by thanking the Yale organizations who have been canvassing in various swing states. He reminded students at both the beginning and end of his talk that there were—as of Friday—only eleven days until Election Day.
“Don’t let up; we don’t have the chance to exhale,” he said. “It looked pretty good last time, too.”
Whitehouse was confident in the ability of Democrats to take more seats in the Senate as well as the presidency. Whitehouse said he looks forward to what he hopes will be a productive time in the Senate, adding that he sees the upcoming election as an opportunity for Democrats to lead by example.
“As Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘to show how one stick is crooked, the best way is to simply put a straight stick beside it,’” Whitehouse said. “We have a chance after this election to be the straight stick to allow us to govern effectively after this moment.”
Congress will face “big problems” in the opening months of the next administration, Whitehouse said. And while some problems were less complex than they seemed, he continued, Congress should shy away from overly-simplistic or partisan solutions.
Even if the Democrats do not gain as many seats as they desire, Senator Whitehouse said some Republican Senators — Olympia Snowe R-ME, Lamar Alexander R-TN, Susan Collins R-ME, and Lindsey Graham R-SC — may be willing to vote Democratic on some key issues: .
“If President Obama keeps his popularity, Senators won’t want to cross Obama and get their seats taken away,” Whitehouse said. “If the Democrats do a good job, we should be able to govern effectively issue by issue.”
After Whitehouse opened the session to questions, Alexander Martone ’10 asked the senator, “What values can we rally around intellectually as a party that can keep us together?”
“We must continue treating ourselves as repairmen rather than ideologues,” Whitehouse replied. “We have significant responsibility to restore our political attention to the middle class.”
In response to a question from David Porter ’10, Whitehouse said an effective Democratic majority needs to stay focused on its legislative agenda and avoid becoming ensnared in corruption scandals that would divert attention from the party’s legislative platform.
“Two bad things can go wrong,” Whitehouse replied. “Someone gets greedy and stupid and uses power corruptly like Tom Delay, or we can get carried away with ideology and have another Terri Schiavo moment.”
Senator Whitehouse said that a reasonable amount of infighting amongst various Democratic factions on specifics is “a quality problem to have,” and added that he thinks campaign-related sparring will end once Congress opens in January.
For instance, while Whitehouse sees Senator Hillary Clinton — whom he supported in the Democratic primaries — as a powerful uniting force in the Democratic party, his support for Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential nominee has been unyielding.
“Barack Obama’s going to be a spectacular president, and I’m really excited,” Whitehouse said. “This election is kind of like watching planets come into alignment, like this was meant to happen.”
Whitehouse, the junior senator from Rhode Island, defeated Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee in 2006 by a 53-47 margin.