BURLINGTON, IOWA — What’s a good conservative/libertarian like me to do this November? I’m not talking about the presidential election — John Kerry has made that decision easy enough. No, I’m referring to the race in Iowa’s House District 2, where I live. If current congressman Jim Leach isn’t the most liberal Republican in the House of Representatives, he’s darn close.
Leach’s 2003 American Conservative Union rating, 44, was third lowest in the House among the GOP, and his lifetime rating, also 44, is the lowest. Leach voted against the Iraq-War resolution in 2002 and against President Bush’s tax cut in 2003. Most recently, he was one of only two Republicans to vote against House Resolution 557, which stated that the world was made safer with the removal of Saddam Hussein and commended the work of American troops in Iraq.
Leach has tried to base his votes on principle. Writing in the Des Moines Register last May, he justified his vote against the tax cut because “high-income citizens who receive dividends will pay a lower tax rate than the working middle class.” One wonders, then, why Leach voted for the capital gains tax cut of 1997, which, presumably, had the same result. However, his vote against the 2003 tax cut won him plaudits from the Register‘s left-wing op-ed page. In an editorial titled “In Praise of Integrity,” the Register gushed, “On tax cuts Leach’s voice is one of reason, and it should be heard.”
On Iraq, his website links to a speech stating his principles for voting against House Resolution 557. Yet it is difficult to tell what those principles are. His speech meanders through the topics of individual rights, Hobbes, Locke, Arnold Toynbee, the Louisiana Purchase, AIDS, anti-Americanism, how Moslems view the 20th Century, and “proxy empowered corporations.” Finally, in the penultimate paragraph, Leach gives some justification for his vote: “It is true, as the resolution asserts, that Iraq and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein ensconced in power. But it is not necessarily true that our country and the world are safer if the overthrow of one thug leads to the creation of millions of rebels with a cause.” Millions? John Kerry couldn’t have said it better.
THIS CONFUSION OF PRINCIPLE suggests that Leach’s votes have more to do with politics. Indeed, his district has shifted to the left in recent years, and Leach has shifted along with it. After the 1992 redistricting, Jim Leach found himself representing Johnson County, the home of the University of Iowa, a.k.a. the “People’s Republic of Johnson County.” Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by more than 2 to 1, the largest gap in the state. This led to a stiff challenge from Democratic State Representative Bob Rush in 1996, with Leach only besting him by six percentage points. Leach responded by distancing himself from the controversial Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In the vote for speaker in 1997, Leach voted for former GOP Minority Leader Bob Michel. The tactic worked, and in a 1998 rematch Leach bested Rush by 15 percentage points.
Leach now represents an even more Democratic-leaning district. Under the 2002 redistricting, Leach not only kept Johnson County, but also picked up Des Moines County where the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is almost 2 to 1. Another tough race ensued, with Leach beating physician Julie Thomas in 2002 by, again, only six percentage points. As a result, Leach has to find ways to attract lots of Democrat voters if he is to win.
He was doing just that at a meeting last week at Southeastern Community College in Burlington. He steered his way gently around the Iraq issue. “I have a great deal of respect for the difficulty facing the President” in Iraq, he said, but had “grave doubts” about the policy. A few elderly members of the audience quizzed him about drug reimportation. Leach agreed that U.S. citizens should be able to purchase drugs from Canada. He then talked at length about the merits of the new prescription drug benefit in Medicare.
Leach’s approach is, as always, low key. He is patient and attentive, never confrontational. By the end, he had probably won over most of the Democrats in the crowd. The last woman to ask him a question prefaced it with, “I would first of all like to commend you on your independent thinking and your courageous stand against our marching into Iraq the way we did.” After the question and answer session a gentleman approached Leach and shook his hand. “I’m a Democrat but I’ll be voting for you,” he said.
Before he left, I asked Leach if he was worried that some of his recent votes on Iraq and taxes will alienate conservatives in the district. Although he mentioned that he voted for the first Bush tax cut and the first war against Iraq, he stated that “I do what I think is in the best interest for this country. People will vote for me or against me, and I accept that.” All in all, he didn’t seem that concerned about it.
Given Leach’s capacity for winning over Democrats, he probably doesn’t have to be.