Other than the H1N1 virus, the most contagious disease in our nation's capital is retirement. The more Democrats that quit, the more others are also encouraged to hang it up.
Retirements like those of Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) turn off donors to Democratic incumbents, encourage viable Republican challengers to get in races around the nation and lead other incumbent Dems to think about spending more time as lobbyists making money in Washington.
The retirement bug is in full rein in DC. The week before Christmas saw three House Democrats from red districts retire (two from Tennessee and one from Kansas) -- while a fourth, Parker Griffith of Alabama, became a Republican. With Dodd and Dorgan now leaving, expect blue legislators from red states to start falling ever more quickly.
These retirements also send a signal to voters that is anything but helpful to President Obama: Democrats expect to lose.
Nobody buys that these folks are leaving to spend more time with their families. It's plain that Democratic lawmakers are reading the writing on the walls (and the polls): Voters are fed up with the Obama administration and with the Democratic Party.
Seeing Democrats stand up and (in effect) admit defeat is a bit like watching repentant sinners confessing at a revival meeting: One outburst triggers another.
Plus, the specter of Democratic leaders running from having to face their constituents again simply adds to voters' suspicion that something may be rotten in the party and in its congressional delegation.
Dorgan and Dodd both retired because they felt they would lose -- but each had new scandals to fear, had he actually run.
Dorgan never had to account to the voters of North Dakota for his role in accepting almost $100,000 in campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff's firm or the Indian tribes it represented. In return for these funds, Dorgan interceded on behalf of one tribe in Massachusetts and another in Mississippi, both far from his home state.
Because his involvement came out after the 2004 elections had been held and he was safely returned to Congress, he never had to face the voters. Indeed, as the top Democrat on the Indian Affairs Subcommittee, he led the investigation of the Abramoff bribes, never mentioning that he was one of their recipients. It would have been fun to watch him try to escape the criticism.
Dodd, at last being held to account for his role in fronting for AIG for his entire career, also faced issues related to his wife's employment by a subsidiary of AIG at the same time that Dodd was running errands for it in Congress. Dodd, of course, was the largest single recipient of AIG funds in Congress, getting more than twice as much as the next largest recipient.
The scandals that attach to Dodd and Dorgan would have injured the party not only in Connecticut and North Dakota but throughout the nation. Democrats can hope the retirements will limit the damage -- though the North Dakota seat will obviously go Republican, probably to Gov. John Hoeven.
But the Connecticut seat is hardly the automatic Democratic retention that most pundits predict. While state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is quite popular and enjoys broad support, Connecticut voters are fed up with the Democratic agenda and opposed to the health-care bill.
The more all Democratic senators march in lockstep to pass legislation the people of America oppose, the more voters are willing to look past the candidates and vote based on party labels.
Ex-Rep. Rob Simmons would be a strong challenger to Blumenthal -- and, with the tide as pronounced as it is becoming for the GOP, who's to say that he can't pull it off?
Ditto, by the way, for anyone who challenges New York's Sen. Kristen Gillibrand. Her record of flacking for the tobacco companies and her flip-flops on most major issues since her appointment make her very vulnerable to any GOP challenger who steps up to the plate.
When a tsunami is coming, it's very hard to predict how high the tide will go. Will it just lap over swing states like Arkansas and Nevada? Will it go up to the Democratic-leaning states like Delaware and Colorado? Could it surge so far as to bring change to Senate seats without elected incumbents in solid Democratic states -- including New York, Illinois and Connecticut?
Might it so swamp the nation that even Democratic incumbents running in blue states aren't safe in California, Washington, Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania?
Our bet is that the rising tide will swamp an awful lot of boats.