The honest way to explain new opposition.
It really should not be all that hard for a moderate Democratic U.S. House member to resist the pressure from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and thus to do the right thing by switching from a “yes” vote on Obamacare to a “no.”
Imagine for a moment that you are — to pick a “swing vote” congressman almost entirely at random — freshman Rep. Mark Schauer of Michigan, who won his seat in the heavily Democratic year of 2008 with just 48.8 percent of the vote in a Republican-leaning district. You’re a smart guy, a Phi Beta Kappa with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. You’ve been in elective office of one sort or another since you were 33 years old, in 1994, so you understand how politics works. You understand the interplay between popular opinion and an officeholder’s considered judgment. And you know that proposals that fail to pass can almost always be revived in slightly different form if they really have merit.
What you would do and say would be something like this: First, you put out a big press release serving notice that you will announce, either in a speech in your home district or in a “special order” on the House floor, your decision on Obamacare. And when the time comes, you say this, or something very much like it:
“Everybody, this question about whether to vote for this health-care reform package in a tough one. Don’t think it is easy, either way. As my constituents surely know, I voted for the House version when it came up for a vote last fall. I make no apologies for having done so. I thought long and hard about it, and it seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed to offer more advantages than disadvantages. We really do need to help the uninsured find coverage. We really do need to help people who feel the system is too complicated, too costly, and too uncaring. And in my considered judgment, the bill we voted on accomplished those goals, or at least moved enough closer to those goals that on balance it seemed a good idea.
“But here’s something else I understand: I understand something that politicians too seldom acknowledge; I understand that I can be wrong. Even when I think I am right, I might be wrong. And if enough people tell me I am wrong, on something that I think is a fairly close call anyway, then it is my responsibility to listen. It is my responsibility not necessarily to change my mind, but to leave myself open to changing my mind. Minds should not be changed for slight reasons or momentary advantage, but minds should be able to change if the reasons are of substance.
“We as congressmen have two roles. To us and to our judgment, our constituents delegate much of their governing authority. They know that while they go about the business of doing the jobs that make our country go, and of caring for their families and befriending their neighbors, they cannot examine every clause of every piece of legislation that comes down the pike. They delegate that job to us, and we must sometimes use our best judgment even against what seems to be the prevailing opinion where that opinion is not focused or well-informed. If the issue is ordinary and I am sure, in good conscience, that my position is right, I have a duty to follow my conscience even if a finger in the wind would tell me that a slight majority of my district might disagree. As a delegate, I must not sacrifice conscience for short-term political expedience.
“But we also have a second role, and it is an important one. We are not just delegates free to rush headstrong in whatever direction we want; instead, we also are representatives. We represent those who elected us. We serve them and must respect their collective wisdom. We are their servants, not their masters. This is particularly true on big issues that earn lots of attention: If the public is strongly engaged in an issue, if the citizens themselves have the chance and inclination in the midst of their busy lives to study a major public issue and think about it hard and then to opine about it, then I no longer am so much more an expert on that issue than they are. They defer less to my judgment in those cases, and it right for them to do so. They expect me less to act as an independent-minded delegate than as a representative of their best collective views.
“Now it must be said that there is no simple mathematical formula to say where the two roles intersect or collide. But think of it like this: If I have reason to believe that 52 percent of my constituents take one position, but I feel strongly the other position is best for my country and my district, I should vote with my conscience and let the chips fall where they may. But if I am only slightly sure that one position is the better one, but a large majority, say 65 percent, of my constituents feel otherwise, then I have a solemn responsibility to follow their lead. This is especially true when not only the numbers, but also the depth and intensity of feeling, is on the other side. My ego must not be so great that I act as if my slight inclination outweighs their overwhelming opinions. I may still think that I am right, on balance, but I nonetheless must serve my citizenry’s considered wishes. Not only that, but I must do so with pride in this system that insists that here, sir, the people rule.
“So we come to this health-care decision. I could pick a provision that I liked that was in the House bill that is not in the final bill we will consider — and there are indeed such provisions — and claim that the failure to include such a provision made the difference for me. Or vice versa: I might claim that the final version contains a new joker in the deck, to which I object. And that claim, too, would be honest.
“But to claim that it is for those reasons of pure policy that I vote ‘no’ would be dishonest. I could stand here all day and sound like a high-minded policy wonk, and while each statement might be technically true, the whole impression would be false. Because the larger truth is that my vote will be cast not because of my own great wisdom, but because I respect the wisdom of the people who sent me here. It is just not right, especially not in a republic, to cram a major change into law through the barest congressional majority, and a partisan majority at that, against the overwhelming opinions of the American people. And on this health-care legislation, there can be no doubt what the majority of the people believe, and what a large plurality of them believe with great passion after considerable reflection: They believe that this bill moves too far too fast, that it is too big and too scary, that it dictates too much and leaves too little choice to the individual. The majority may be right, or it may be wrong. But it has spoken in polls and at the ballot boxes and in letters and emails and phone calls and town meetings. And its message is utterly clear. Its message is to start over. To build a wider consensus before making such a big change. To slow down even though we in Washington might think our handiwork is not just well designed but of pressing importance.
“We in Washington must listen. Again, we must listen. And listen again. Some of us may not even like what we hear, but still we must listen.
“Toward that end, having not only listened but heard the message, I urge all of my wavering colleagues to make clear, in public, that we will not vote for this package — and that we further urge our leadership to withdraw it and to try to rework it almost from scratch, with input from whichever of our Republican colleagues actually are serious about solving these health-care problems. Look: I do believe that there has been some bad faith shown by some of my Republican colleagues. But I also know, without a doubt, that many of them are serious and sincere and principled. It is high time we stop bashing each other and start respecting each other.
“So I will vote against the comprehensive health-care legislation soon to come before us. I will do so because sometimes we must take time to breathe and reflect. We should not take a step backward, but there is nothing wrong with taking a step sideways. If the step to the side, for a pause, allow us to better hear the people and act accordingly, it can only be a good thing.
“I will vote no, and many of my colleagues ought to do the same. This is a republic. We are not rulers. We serve. We serve. We serve.
“Thank you very much.”
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