Inside the Capitol

Friday, October 06, 2006

10-11 Heather's Declaration of Independence

WED, 10-11-06

SANTA FE -- The buzz-word for this campaign is "Independent." Republican congressional candidates throughout the nation suddenly are independent as soon as they see their constituents turning away from President George W. Bush.
Rep. Heather Wilson, of New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, is independent this time around, as Albuquerque-area voters begin turning away from the president. Her fellow Republican, Steve Pearce, down in the 2nd Congressional District, can remain a conservative because a majority of his constituents continue to back George Bush.
For the past several decades, "Conservative" has been the magic word to get Republican candidates elected. They always branded their Democratic opponents as liberal, a label only slightly better than communist.
In GOP primary elections, candidates have long fought over who is most conservative. Moderate is a bad word. Rush Limbaugh once dared listeners to call in and name a moderate who ever had done anything good for the world. Sure enough, no one passed the test.
Occasionally, Republicans will even label one of their own as a liberal -- the equivalent of excommunication from the party. Former Gov. Dave Cargo received that stamp in the 1994 gubernatorial primary.
Cargo finished fourth out of four candidates and became the only person ever to come in behind John Dendahl in an election. Dendahl finished third.
Washington political observers have always called New Mexico's Sen. Pete Domenici one of the Senates' great moderates. But Pete runs as a conservative in New Mexico.
His quiet moderation has prevented Domenici from going farther in the Senate leadership and from being selected as a vice-presidential running mate. Imagine how happy the George H.W. Bush administration would have been to have had Vice President Domenici instead of Vice President Quayle.
Moderate Democrats get around the disgraced word by calling themselves centrists. The Democratic Leadership Council, composed of Southern governors and congressmen, came up with the idea in the late 1980s.
Their first successful field test on a national scale was Bill Clinton's campaign for president in 1992. It worked, and we continue to hear about centrism, including in Bill Richardson's gubernatorial campaigns.
The national Republican strategy understandably allows congressional candidates to distance themselves from the president, even while inviting him to help raise campaign funds.
There is a clever method of allowing candidates in marginal districts to establish independence from their political party. Republicans and Democrats both do it and have done it from the beginning, both in Congress and in state legislatures.
Rep. Wilson has an ad about voting against the president on stem cell research. Actually it was a veto override, which requires a two-thirds vote. House Republican leaders had plenty of votes to stop an override so they gave permission to those members facing tough opposition in swing districts to vote against the party position unless their vote was needed to offset some last-minute defections.
On important votes, there usually aren't many defections. The party whip system has every vote closely identified. Lawmakers aren't always completely candid with lobbyists and constituents but party discipline makes it difficult to be evasive with a whip.
So those Republican House members, who voted for the unsuccessful override, not only were given a free pass, but some free advertising. New Mexico isn't the only state where those independent-on-stem-cell-research ads are airing.
If Wilson wins this campaign, presumably her toughest ever, maybe she won't have to worry anymore about waving the banner of independence. Maybe she'll be as well off as Pete and able to say and do what she pleases.
Also on the lips of Washington Republicans this election are favorable references to Harry Truman. Oh that Harry could still be around to hear them because there weren't nearly as many encouraging words while he was in office.
The nation wasn't sure it liked a plain-spoken commoner as its president. This was a guy who never owned his own home and who had a very average family. Now he's an icon. He'd have some choice observations.



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