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It's a bad political year for Senate Democrats and, as far as that goes, it's not so great for the nation, either. With Bob Kerrey's announcement that he will not seek a third term, both the Senate and the nation are losing an effective voice that helped to elevate the tenor of the national dialogue.

Coming on top of Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan's announcement last year that he would not seek re-election, Kerrey's decision is an especially unwelcome turn. Together, they represent a significant loss of insight and leadership that cannot help but have an impact on the Senate.

For Democrats, the loss is especially disheartening. They had visions of taking back control of the Senate this year, but Kerrey is the fourth Democrat to announce he will retire at the end of this year. Besides Moynihan, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Richard Bryan of Nevada have announced they will not seek re-election.

The Democrats needed to gain six seats to control the Senate, not an easy task on its own. The job has become complicated, perhaps fatally, by the need to defend four seats where their incumbent is not running. In New York, with Republican Rudolph Giuliani expected to run against first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the election could go either way. And Kerrey's Nebraska normally leans Republican.

Such are the vagaries of politics. Parties rise and fall and the country endures. But leaders of candor and independence are not easy to find in the national politics. Moynihan is one such man; Kerrey is another.

The Nebraskan has sometimes been described as a "maverick" but what that mainly seems to mean is that, like Moynihan, he easily reaches across party lines to find support for important projects. For example, he enlisted the backing of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., for his plan to reform the government's management of the Missouri River. And he gave his support to legislation by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., requiring the president to obtain congressional approval before withholding food or medicine from countries at odds with the United States.

Kerrey's reasons for leaving the Senate remain mysterious. Until recently, he was expected to make an easy run for re-election. But then he surprised his supporters by wondering out loud if he would. In explaining his choice to reporters last week, Kerrey said, "It is a deeply personal decision. But I feel my spiritual side needs to be filled back up."

It may sound a little new-wavy, but most people understand the empty feeling that sometimes overtakes even the best of us and, more important, the sense of possibility that arrives when we are recharged. If that's what Kerrey needs, more power to him. He'll be missed, but we might have a better Congress if more of its members recognized when it was time to go.

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