Thursday, September 16, 2010

Minnick, Lodge, & Party Loyalty

"I believe you can be most effective in politics by joining a party, that party which by its character and its principles you think can do most for the country... [I]f you are so constituted that you cannot become a part of a great organization and subordinate your own wishes to general results, remain an independent in politics. But be a real independent, not a sham one. It is a perfectly honorable thing to be a party man. It is likewise a perfectly honorable thing to be a genuine independent...although I do not think it is so useful. But it is a very mean and dishonest thing to be a party man and call yourself an independent, or to be an independent and call yourself a party man. If you are a member of a party, be true to it. If you are an independent, be true to your independence. But be a slave to neither."

-- Henry Cabot Lodge, from a speech entitled "Party Allegiance" given to Harvard University students March 8, 1892. (Emphasis added)
By now most residents of Idaho's first congressional district have seen Congressman Walt Minnick's campaign ad that touts an all too familiar anti-Obama, anti-spending and anti-Washington theme. Much has been written about the misleading language Minnick's campaign employed for the purpose of gaining the incumbent whatever votes are out there to be won by such advertisements, though little has been said about this not being the first time Minnick's campaign has carefully crafted language that would serve to mislead voters about his record. What hasn't been said nearly enough since long-time political reporter Randy Stapilus introduced it as the "smoothest Republican campaign videos" of this voting cycle is that Walt Minnick is running as a Democrat for re-election to the House. In any other circumstance I might advise that someone please tell the candidate that he's having a political identity crisis.

In Tuesday's editorial, the Idaho State Journal concluded that in Idaho party labels don't really mean much. The reason for this conclusion? The "politically canny move" by Minnick to state in the previously mentioned campaign ad that he "has had to say no" to his own party "far more than [he's] said yes." When asked about the Republican National Committee's attack ad quoting Minnick on this, Minnick's spokesman and former executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party John Foster said: “While it is unfortunate that this group decided to use Walt’s words for a partisan attack, it also serves to highlight the fact that Walt is the most independent member of Congress.” Does lack of loyalty to one's party equal independence? Walt Minnick and John Foster apparently think so.

When Walt Minnick ran for Congress, he ran as a Democrat. He ran to the left, unlike what he is currently doing. He ran with the wave of progressivism that swept Barack Obama into office. He was eagerly awaiting then-candidate Obama when he spoke in Boise, strategically placing himself in the crowd behind Obama for all the cameras to see. He was for health care reform, campaign finance reform, and the energy bill; he was pro-choice and supportive of the unions; and, Walt Minnick ran against the pandering for votes and far-right antics of Bill Sali. Now running for re-election, Walt Minnick is running as far from the 'Democrat' label as he can get. He's running against Obamacare, against the Wall Street bailouts that he once supported (and more than likely benefited he and his friends at Goldman Sachs), and against anything that might add to the federal deficit especially if it increases the size of government even slightly. By all accounts, in everything but name, Walt Minnick is running as a Republican.

The most disconcerting aspect of Minnick's governance to the right of where he ran is that in doing so, he is dragging Idaho Democrats with him. As Minnick panders to the right, ignores the left (his base), and controls the middle, the Idaho Republican Party is forced even further to the right. Instead of having some moderate candidates, like 2006's race with Sheila Sorensen in the pack, Republicans end up with far-right kooks and candidates as conservative as Raul Labrador. But, back to the Democrats... If Keith Allred is any indication, Democratic candidates either don't feel they can actually run as self-proclaimed Democrats with Democratic ideals and a record befitting a Democrat or there just aren't any real Democrats out there who are aspiring to public office. Democrats like Allred are left stealing pages out of Minnick's playbook because they think that is the only way to win. Young Democrats like myself are left hoping that someday there will again be elected officials like Frank Church who are both good for this state and eventually give rise to other strong, Democratic candidates like Richard Stallings. Young Democrats like myself are left hoping that someday it will be okay again to openly proclaim yourself a member of the Democratic Party in your own campaign ads. This is what Walt Minnick has done for this party.

How does a party get out in front of the attacks made against its members and its principles if one of the attackers is its de facto leader? How can the Idaho Democratic Party tout the merits of the health insurance reform bill when Congressman Minnick voted against it? How can the IDP support the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when their de facto leader tried to strip it of any real teeth? How do we attempt to explain the benefits of the Stimulus to our fellow Idahoans when not a single member of the congressional delegation, including Minnick, voted for it and continue to crow about its impact on the deficit? How Idaho Democrats can look the other way as their congressman votes on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to charge his own party with attempting to "willfully deceive the American people," is beyond me. Really, how?

If you haven't, please take a moment to read the introduction to this post, a quote from a speech given in 1892 by then-congressman Henry Cabot Lodge. In a time when partisanship meant something quite different from what it does today, Lodge presented the case for bearing some allegiance to a political party. Be it clear, Lodge was not asking every member of the Harvard student body to register to vote as a Republican; what Lodge was promoting was a responsibility to principle and party--two things that once went hand-in-hand. Lodge was presenting a viewpoint that seems to have been lost in recent years, a viewpoint that spoke to the strength and purpose of political parties: "Therefore it may be said that our history has been made, and our great advances have been secured, through party organizations." If Lodge were alive today, he would certainly be perplexed by the epidemic of politicians running from their party affiliations.

Not only would Henry Cabot Lodge have been appalled at the disrespect and disloyalty of politicians like Mr. Minnick, he would have been appalled at party organizations like the IDP in their following of such "sham" candidates. A final excerpt from Lodge's position on independence in politics:
"...[T]he independence in politics of which we have heard so much of late years [sic] is the independence of professionals who think the name valuable, and has usually consisted in voting one ticket all the time and in trying the two political parties by widely different standards. Call it by what fair-sounding name you choose, this is partisanship, and unattractive partisanship, because it masquerades. ...Independence is a fact and may exist under any conditions, just as the name independence may be claimed and used without any relation to the actual truth. I have seen greater courage and independence shown by men of both parties who were strict party men, and always voted their party ticket, than by any one else, and, at the same time, the most ferocious partisanship I have ever witnessed I have seen exhibited by those who proclaimed their independence most loudly to the ears of a somewhat wearied world."
It is a world wearied by the ideologically charged times in which we live, but claiming independence, sham or otherwise, and owing no allegiance to your own party is neither good for your constituents nor the future of your party.

While it may be politically expedient for any candidate running as a Democrat in Idaho to highlight a handful of their more conservative positions, after all this is what successful Democratic Senator Frank Church did with the issue of gun control and what Democratic Congressman Richard Stallings did with the balanced budget amendment and abortion, it is not politically necessary to disrespect and abandon the Democratic Party completely. There must be Democrats in this state who believe, as I do, that we've lost sight of the progressive ideals that once resided in our party. This is what electing Walt Minnick has done to our party and re-electing Walt Minnick isn't going to make our party any more formidable.

The world may be wearied by the ideological hard right turn it has taken of late, but that does not mean there is no place for party loyalty today.

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