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Miss America Conservatives

In comments on my post "Independence on the Cheap," dsquared says I'm being unfair to Senator Gordon Smith, whose position in favor of unpaid-for tax cuts but against Medicaid cuts I called "cheap, untenable and dishonest."

you've got Gordon Smith wrong. I don't agree with him on tax cuts, but what he did opposing the administration's Medicaid cuts took courage. If you think that he was getting a free ride or having it easy on bucking his party on something as big as opposing drastic budget-driven Medicaid cuts, I think you are being unfairly harsh. Smith, a cousin of the Udalls has tended to be progressive on issues around health care since he's been in the Senate. ...

I think he's become even more passionate about these issues since one of his sons, Garrett, committed suicide due to a combination of mental health
issues and learning disabilities. Smith has said that for him, pursuing positive changes in health care policy gives his son's memory meaning...I do not think it is fair to question his sincerity about standing up for health care.

I don't question Smith's sincerity in supporting Medicaid, and I may have been a little unfair to the four Senators in portraying their choice as morally worse than most Republicans who voted for tax cuts and also against Medicaid. How can a vote combination that matches half of my preferences be worse than one that matches neither of my preferences? (I think it can be, but I'll hold that point.) I stand by my view that voting only for the restoration of funding to a single program, while giving in to the gutting of revenue for these same programs in the future, is at least not much better than the main Republican position, and does not deserve special praise. This raises two points that I've wanted to bring up for a while:

First, I'm sorry, but I am tired of the attribution of "courage" to Republican Senators for voting for politically popular and sound provisions. If the Secretary of the Treasury or HHS comes out against Bush's Medicaid cuts, that might take some courage -- they might lose their jobs, and have to take some $300,000/year lobbying gig. (In other words, even they aren't exactly Sir Thomas More.) Gordon Smith works for the people of Oregon. His job is to represent them, and to represent his view of the national interest. Voting against the preferences of an unpopular president, in a blue state, and in defense of a good and popular program, simply doesn't deserve to be called "courage." I never thought it showed courage for Democrats like Lautenberg to vote against tax increases in Clinton's 1993 budget. Likewise, it shows no particular courage for Smith to oppose his party's president in a symbolic vote for Medicaid. It's called doing your job. In this case, taken in combination with his other votes, I think it's even less than that.

It might take a little bit of courage, though, to stand up and point out that maintaining the services and protections that we expect from government is going to require TAXES, now and in the future. But we elect Senators for a six-year term exactly in the expectation that they can show just that kind of courage, which Smith showed none of.

Second, I'm tired of giving quasi-conservatives credit for what I call Miss America compassion (I'll explain in a minute). Smith's son's suicide led him to support more funding for suicide prevention and for mental health care generally. Great -- my life has been affected by suicide also, so I'm all for that. Similarly, Senator Pete Domenici's daughter's mental illness made him an advocate for mandating equitable treatment of mental and physical well-being in health insurance, a cause in which he was joined by Paul Wellstone. Again, I'm all for it, and I have no doubt that Domenici was at least as personally sincere and driven about it as Wellstone, and watching the two of them pair up on this cause and learn to work together was a good example for the potential of democratic institutions to create understanding.

But what has always bothered me about such examples is that their compassion seems so narrowly and literally focused on the specific misfortune that their family encountered. Having a child who suffers from mental illness would indeed make one particularly passionate about funding for mental health, sure. But shouldn't it also lead to a deeper understanding that there are a lot of families, in all kinds of situations beyond their control, who need help from government? Shouldn't having a son whose illness leads to suicide open your eyes to something more than a belief that we need more money for suicide help-lines? Shouldn't it call into question the entire winners-win/losers-lose ideology of the current Republican Party? Shouldn't it also lead to an understanding that if we want to live in a society that provides a robust system of public support for those who need help -- whether for mental illness or any of the other misfortunes that life hands out at random -- we will need a government with adequate institutions and revenues to provide those things?

And that's what I mean by "Miss America Compassion." These Senators are like Miss America contestants, each with a "platform": Mr. Ohio: "Adoption Assistance." Mr. Oregon: "Suicide Prevention." Mr. Minnesota: "Community Development." Mr. New Mexico: "Mental Health Parity." Mr. Pennsylvania: "Missing children" The platform is meant to show them as thoughtful, deep and independent-minded, but after the "platform segment" they return to play their obedient part in a degrading exercise that makes this country crueler and government less supportive.

And, of course, as with Miss America contestants' "platforms," there are a few approved topics and many more that simply couldn't be considered. It's not too likely that you'll see Miss Alabama adopt "Income inequality" as her platform or Miss Colorado, "Corporate tax evasion." Nor is a Senator likely to have a family experience with lack of health insurance, or personal bankruptcy, or Food Stamps.

I respect and admire the way in which their family's personal experiences have helped change some of these conservatives' view of certain issues. That's certainly better than the large number who let nothing shake their ideology. But I just think it's too easy to collect the prize for Independence and Courage, and that these conservative Republicans should be pushed much harder to move on to the next level of understanding.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on March 21, 2005 | Permalink


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This is a great post. It is far past the point in time where politicians of any stripe should get courage credit for simply doing the right thing. Sure, my wife appreciates it when I take out the garbage, but she doesn't feel the need to bake me a cake every time I do it. Nor should she. It's great when a congressman is on the right side of an issue, but credit is only due when they manage to do that consistently. That's what differentiates the statesmen from the hacks.

Posted by: TTN | Mar 21, 2005 12:54:41 PM

Shouldn't it call into question the entire winners-win/losers-lose ideology of the current Republican Party? Shouldn't it also lead to an understanding that if we want to live in a society that provides a robust system of public support for those who need help -- whether for mental illness or any of the other misfortunes that life hands out at random -- we will need a government with adequate institutions and revenues to provide those things?

I mostly agree with you, and I don't want to give Gordon Smith credit for anything in particular.

In the case of mental illness, it is not at all clear to me that the misfortune is entirely random, but I'm still not comfortable with assigning moral blame. There seems to be a fair amount of assortative mating going on which tends to produce a genetic overload. So people with family histories of mental illness who marry others with a similar history are, in a sense, asking for a kid with mental illness. Does that mean that we should leave those people in the lurch? I guess what I'm saying is this: doesn't restricting help to "those who are in X situation through no fault of their own" create another kind of approved category?

Isn't this like trying to help only the deserving poor?

And a somewhat tangential point. Don't you think it would be possible to tie this into your "security is opportunity" theme. Mental illnesses, at least some of them are a really good example. There are a lot of highly creative people--scientists and others--who suffer from mood disorders, and when we don't treat them we are depriving society of their contributions. Now it may not be in the interest of an employer to do this. After all, an individual might decide that his job is crappy and he wants to quit, but that's why the employer shouldn't be the one in charge of providing the health insurance or deciding what needs to be covered. That's why we need to socialize some of the risk and the burdens, because only society as a whole is capable of promoting the general welfare.

Posted by: Abby | Mar 21, 2005 1:55:15 PM

Outstanding post. Absolutely spot-on, as usual. You've nailed one of the things that's always driven me up a wall about conservatives: they all believe in the free market, except when it affects them personally. Each GOP senator seems to have his own set of market failures that he or she recognizes, but doesn't believe (or, really, admit) that any others exist.
Having said that, there does seem to be some sort of proto-responsibility at work here, in that Smith, Domenici, Greg Ganske, et al. appear to have picked their one progressive issue out of genuine conviction, and not, as with Specter, out of pure political calculation. If we're ranking them, surely that leaves Specter closer to the bottom.
(Note, though, that any ranking system which does not place Rick Santorum at the very bottom is presumptively malfunctioning.)

Posted by: The Navigator | Mar 21, 2005 3:27:25 PM

Listen Mark, you just don't get it. If they don't do what their party says, there will be consequences. Like not being able to appear at the news conference announcing the party position on the bill. To forgo that opportunity takes real guts.

Posted by: Rob W | Mar 21, 2005 4:01:18 PM

Bravo, Mark. You write well when angry! And no doubt the background of many calm, ultra-fair posts gives your voice special impact when raised.

This point is dead on: :: Nor is a Senator likely to have a family experience with lack of health insurance, or personal bankruptcy, or Food Stamps. ::

...or with having a soldier son/daughter return from duty in Iraq missing limbs or suffering a brain injury.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Mar 21, 2005 4:40:17 PM

Amen, Brother!

Posted by: phastphil | Mar 21, 2005 4:50:30 PM

Aye! Conserviant campassionism: your family draws a bad card, and your solution is to keep dealing the same old cutthroat game - only with that card taken out of the deck.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Mar 21, 2005 5:23:54 PM

I remember a few years ago Dan Burton held hearings about autism. He spoke eloquently about his grandson and his struggle. I remember thinking at the time if only every congress person could only be personally affected by one of the problems facing average americans we could finally get things done.

Posted by: Nutthuis | Mar 21, 2005 8:03:30 PM

As a distant, uninvolved, impotent spectator of the Kabuki theater known as the United States Senate, my question is how can Mark's bit of political esoterica be transmitted beyond the liberal blogosphere?

Or do we all simply smile smugly to ourselves?

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Mar 22, 2005 12:13:05 AM

Democrats have been infighting for years. Suddenly it takes courage for Republicans to do what they think is right? If they aren't allowed to appear at the photo op, they should call a press conference and/or write a blistering letter to the press telling the American people what happened. This is the kind of thing Democrats have done in the past. Republicans have been in lockstep unity for years with the right wing bullying the moderate members. Moderates have been too quiet. They should stand up and shout.

Posted by: Larraine | Mar 22, 2005 5:39:31 AM

Democrats have been infighting for years. Suddenly it takes courage for Republicans to do what they think is right? If they aren't allowed to appear at the photo op, they should call a press conference and/or write a blistering letter to the press telling the American people what happened. This is the kind of thing Democrats have done in the past. Republicans have been in lockstep unity for years with the right wing bullying the moderate members. Moderates have been too quiet. They should stand up and shout.

Posted by: Larraine | Mar 22, 2005 5:39:57 AM

It does strike me that another way of looking at the phenomenon of "Miss American Conservatism" is that having a personal or family connection to some social problem usually considered to be "liberal" political territory (suicide, breast cancer, fallen arches) gives individual conservatives a bit of "cover" to pursue liberal policies without incurring quite as much blowback from the forces and institutions that pay to have conservatives put into office in the first place. Of course, this is a model that suggests that individual conservative politicians would actually prefer, given enough cover, to be liberal politicians. And I'm not sure I believe that any more.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden | Mar 22, 2005 1:07:25 PM

Bob Novak has a thing for a police training program that fits this bill nicely. It is right on.

Posted by: benton | Mar 22, 2005 4:24:08 PM

One of the reasons the First Lady was assigned teenage gang problems is the fact the MS-13 has been using machetes in Northen Virginia, the location where many Senators and their staff live. The MS-13 gang had been growing in CA and in 31 other states and was ignored until they started hanging out in the malls of Northen Virginia.

Posted by: EG | Mar 22, 2005 4:46:49 PM

Add Nancy Reagan's support for stem cell research to the list.

Posted by: battlepanda | Mar 24, 2005 2:56:06 PM


You are absolutely correct. Mark Hatfield was a Republican who had courage - he voted against the constitutional balanced budget amendment. Voting for a program that blue state Oregonians support while voting against Feingold-Chaffee (paygo), Carper (no reconcilliation tax cuts) and for Bunning (more tax cuts for the wealthy) was fiscally irresponsible, not courageous.

Posted by: Chuck Sheketoff | Mar 25, 2005 12:52:50 AM

Thank you for exposing the falsehoods embedded in the "Miss America" syndrome you describe. It is essential that we challenge the prevailing notion that a collection of selected and "acceptable" individual interests is somehow the same as our collective interest. Recapturing a broader vision of the role of "our" government - and our supposed leaders - helps to paint in stark detail the deeply destructive attacks on our common interests being waged by those now at the helm.

Posted by: pbresette | Mar 25, 2005 10:38:05 AM

You evoked, but did not mention, Dick Cheney's "courageous" stand on gay marriage.

Posted by: Steve | Mar 25, 2005 10:56:57 AM

And the list of miss america cons go on: Duncan Hunter (d-san diego) had heart surgery, now wants govt money for prevention.

Posted by: dude | Mar 26, 2005 3:06:00 PM

I think this is well represented by the (quite likely apochryphal) story of Ronald Reagan and a mother on welfare that he met. Moved by her conditions, he made out a check to her on the spot, and when he found out that she hand't cashed it and had instead framed it, turned around and wrote her another one.

When I first heard this, it was presented as evidence of his humanity and compassion, but it's obvious to me that it just shows his incapability of making connections between one tangible instance and hundreds of other less accessable ones.

One question that this pattern brings to mind, following what Patrick said, to what extent are all Republicans incapable of making intuitive leaps about things social? Or is this the only way they can sell such things to their constituents?

Posted by: mattH | Mar 31, 2005 3:23:50 PM