Friday, May 26, 2017

Picking Principles Over Party Isn't Always Easy

Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT)
One of my great pet peeves in discussions of politics is "I vote for the person, not the party."  This isn't quite as bad for me as "there's no difference between the two parties" (which is the metaphorical equivalent of slamming my head through a plate glass window), but I will physically catch myself trying to start a tirade against someone who says that they're above party politics, instead basing their decisions on an inert feeling about someone they've never met.

This is partially because it's ridiculously high school and partially because it's stupid.  The reality is that you should vote on issues, not parties or candidates, but how a candidate will vote in a legislative body.  This is how decisions should be made-picking someone because of how you feel about them is moronic, because unless you know them personally you don't know them.  This is something that I get into CONSTANT arguments about with people, particularly when it comes to female politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.  You personally have no idea if these people are kind or mean, wonderfully caring or unsympathetically cruel, because all you see is a very well-choreographed person who is presenting themselves to the world.  Particularly with famous politicians like this, ones who have been in the public eye for decades, unforced errors are few and accidentally showing a side of themselves you didn't expect is rare.  This makes them seem cold to some people, but if you had every single waking moment of your life under scrutiny, you'd also be calculating about what you put it out into the universe.

Now, I'm not saying you can't have a feeling about a person or that visions of a candidate can't shine through publicly, but your vote shouldn't be based solely on whether you'd want someone to come over for nachos.  As I mentioned above, you should vote based on issues, but ignoring party is a foolish thing to do, because of the way that most legislative bodies work.

Take, for example, the case of Susan Collins, one of the most popular senators both in Washington and in her home state.  Collins is a pro-gay marriage, pro-choice senator who didn't vote for Donald Trump in 2016, is routinely lambasting the House-backed version of the AHCA and did not support President Trump's travel ban.  She is relatively moderate on gun rights, environmental policy, and has even voted against Trump cabinet nominees Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos.  She does hold some more traditional Republican beliefs, particularly when it comes to taxes and foreign affairs, but she is, on-paper, a moderate in every sense of the word.  If she was what the Republican Party represented to the country, Democrats would be a decidedly minority party.

But the problem is that on the first day of the new Congress, Susan Collins casts her vote for Mitch McConnell, a man who then runs the agenda.  Despite Collins not backing any of these decisions, this results in bills like the AHCA getting to the Senate floor, Pruitt & DeVos being confirmed, LGBT rights bills being delayed, and environmental deregulation.  This is because McConnell shapes the agenda, and what actually gets voted upon.  It's not a case where every senator can just put their bills on the floor willy-nilly; it's up to McConnell to direct what goes to the floor of the body.  As a result, Collins really is endorsing all of these beliefs even if she doesn't personally believe them by endorsing a party that won't let her viewpoints be heard.  Quite frankly, were it not for that first vote, I'd happily cast a ballot for Collins, but knowing her support for Mitch McConnell makes it impossible for me to support her.

You can call me a partisan for choosing Collins (rather than, say, Joe Machin who is in the opposite boat), but the point is this-political party matters.  A lot.  It shapes the agenda more than pretty much every other bill.  Yes, it's not a guarantee (look at how little has been done during the first five months of the Trump administration despite the Republicans holding the White House and both houses of Congress), but generally the party that holds the seats holds the agenda.  As a result, you vote against your own political party at your own peril.

I was thinking about this yesterday when Greg Gianforte won the special election to fill Montana's open House seat.  Gianforte, despite committing a violent crime on the eve of the election, still won a seat in Congress.  He attacked a reporter, committing a misdemeanor (not to mention opening himself up for a lawsuit), but was rewarded with a seat in the House,overnight becoming one of the most powerful people in the country.  It feels like electing a criminal should be something you shouldn't want to do, but would it, in the confidentiality of a ballot box, actually make the difference?

Former Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC)
Now, granted, I am not a Republican so I wouldn't have been voting for Gianforte anyway, but the point is this has happened on the other side of the aisle too.  In 2010, Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) was asked questions about his views on President Obama by two conservative activists on a street corner.  Despite no clear threat to his personal safety (there's video tape so you can tell that this is the case), the congressman grabbed one of the activists by the hand and wrist, and didn't let go of the activist despite the fact that that he asked multiple times for Etheridge to let go of him.  Etheridge, a 7-term incumbent, went on to lose reelection to Republican Renee Ellmers by only 1,483 votes, arguably so minuscule that one could claim he lost because of this incident.

There are distinctions between Gianforte and Etheridge, of course.  Etheridge had a long career of votes and a more thoughtful connection with his constituents, having served in public office for 32 years.  His interaction with an activist was coordinated by a Republican strategist, whereas Gianforte was attacking a member of the press.  Etheridge came out and apologized vociferously for his actions, while Gianforte waited until after the election to issue a statement.  But at the end of the day, the similarities cannot be denied-both men, upon being asked a question that, as politicians, they owed the public, chose to indulge in violence rather than patiently put up with queries into their beliefs that might alienate supporters, or simply walking away.

I really want to tell you that I wouldn't have voted for Etheridge in that situation.  I have, after all, endorsed Republicans or the concept of not voting before when the Democratic nominee was too extreme or too corrupt for me to get behind.  Most notably, I was supportive of Joseph Cao's campaign against William Jefferson in 2008 since Jefferson had clearly broken the law repeatedly (he's now in jail).  I supported Mazie Ferguson's write-in campaign in 2010 when the Democrats nominated someone wholly unfit for the office of senator in South Carolina.  I probably would have voted for Lisa Murkowski in 2010 to keep Joe Miller out of the Senate, even if the Democrat had done nothing wrong (same with Angus King in 2012).  If there is a moral issue or a criminal one, I am willing to stand on principle if need be (if the Democrats had nominated someone like Donald Trump, I'd have been willing to back John Kasich or Jeb Bush...or considered staying home if it was Trump v. Cruz).  But I'm going to be honest here-I can't say with a straight face I wouldn't have voted for Bob Etheridge in 2010.

This bothers me, because quite frankly I think it's repugnant that Gianforte is now headed to Congress, and I want to say that I wouldn't support someone like him under any circumstances, but I can't.  I can console myself that Etheridge had been a longtime public servant for 30+ years, and that he was purposefully provoked into acting that way, but the reality is that I truly believe violence is never the answer.  It should be an issue that rises above politics, that should transcend what anyone tolerates.  But knowing how close that election was and knowing how similar my views are to Etheridge, and knowing how close the battle for the House was thought to be at the time, I would be lying if there wasn't a part of me that might have considered Etheridge rather than voting for Ellmers or third party or staying home.  I'm not uncomfortable with that in myself, but there it is.

Thankfully I've never been put in this position.  I've voted for men that I wasn't particularly thrilled about, who were more conservative than I am or whom I knew from personal experience (not anecdotal) to be smarmy or kind of a jerk.  But I've never felt like my principles were ever compromised in casting a vote-I never voted for someone I felt was unfit for that office.  I think we need to continue to challenge our politicians to be better people, and to be worthy of the offices to which they aspire, but we (and I include myself here) need to also be willing to sacrifice party if principle is at stake.  Otherwise we give political parties a free check to behave however they see fit.  The behavior of Greg Gianforte or Bob Etheridge should not be tolerated by their constituencies, and punishment (including at the ballot box) should be dished out if members of the office act beneath its dignity.

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