Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wyden on Smith: Party, Collegiality and Constitutional Duty

The race for Oregon's Senate seat in 2008 is truly getting the once-over in the early going by the major left of center electoral blogs. McJoan at Daily Kos has been keeping the race on the front page most days of the last two weeks, and Jonathan Singer, Kari Chisholm and the Draft DeFazio team have been working it hard at MyDD as well. Monday Matt Stoller got into the act, calling to account Ron Wyden's chief of staff for his statement on how Wyden will approach the campaign:
And this week, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden's chief of staff, Josh Kardon, told The Bulletin that Wyden will not actively campaign against Smith in 2008.

"Just as Sen. Smith has supported the Republican nominee in both of his last two races, Sen. Wyden will support the Democratic nominee for 2008, but he won't campaign against Gordon, and he will continue to work with Sen. Smith on the state's behalf for the next two years," Kardon said.

Paul Motta, chairman of the Deschutes County Democrats, said he understands why Wyden doesn't want to go after Smith, but Motta wishes he would.

"DeFazio could win much easier if Wyden would support him," Motta said.

Among Oregon's four Democratic congressmen, DeFazio stands as Smith's toughest opponent, said Bill Lunch, chairman of the Oregon State University Political Science Department. Lunch noted that DeFazio has won 10 terms in a mostly rural southwest Oregon district. [source: if they embraced a rational business model for the future and offered their content free I'd tell you and happily link you, but you'll have to follow the MyDD link if you really want to know]
Let's start at the outset by addressing one facet of this story--the idea that Wyden won't actively support the Democratic nominee (although to be fair his record on that isn't necessarily 100% either, {cough--Lieberman}). I think the confusion started with the poor wording by Paul Motta, who used the phrase "if Wyden would support him." There's a big difference between not campaigning against Smith, and not supporting a nominee. Chisholm was right to set the record straight yesterday on Ron's behalf, although to be honest I don't think Matt went as far as to suggest Wyden wouldn't support the eventual nominee. His credentials on past giving are strong, and there's no reason to doubt another cycle of help, especially since his own campaign is another three years away.

I don't think that's the issue here, however. Matt's point goes to the tradition of Congressional collegiality, particularly in the Senate. In the well of the chamber, Members are theoretically never to be called out in the second person but the third, via the Chair--and never spoken ill of but in the most politely couched terms. I actually like that stuff; it's a courtliness and standard of elite professionalism that befits the effort of doing the people's business. And in Matt's view, it's that code of conduct that is preventing the courtly Wyden from assuming the role of actively opposed, partisan bystander to the conflict.

That outward, explicit statement of demurral bothers me not only for the substance of what Kardon is asserting, but the implication, perception and timing--the horse race, political calculation part of it. Here are some things I believe his "not campaigning" will keep Wyden from doing:
  • asserting that Smith needs to be replaced
  • asserting that Smith should be held accountable as a Republican enabler of Bush policy
  • asserting that Smith does not serve Oregonians well enough
  • asserting that [Dem nominee] is better for the job than Gordon Smith
  • pointing out how often Smith has voted in accordance with White House wishes that are totally opposite to Oregon's values, despite claiming to be an Oregon moderate
  • pointing out Smith was a vote for torture and habeas corpus
  • pointing out Smith's vote to drill in ANWR after promising not to, among other promises to Oregonians, and fighting against things Oregonians have voted repeatedly to keep
and so forth. None of this is heretical, out of bounds, unreasonable, not based in fact, or personally demeaning. They are all entirely job-related issues. To support someone for partisan office as a member of the same partisan party, in my opinion it actually can't go without saying that the other guy's not good enough to stay there, and that your guy is better. I don't think Ron's willing to say that. Wyden people, come set me straight if he'll say any of the above publically.

This simple calculus--our guy good, your guy not so good--is true as a generality, but the real truth is that these are special times. We continute to teeter on the edge of a full blown Constitutional crisis, and at best have seen grave damage to it already. It's not hype to say lives and treasure hang in the balance, from Iraq to global warming. The current administration is an active threat to liberty and the fundamentals of our founding, and I'm afraid I'm not yet sure that they'll be sufficiently beaten back from further advances, much less thrown into political impotence. War authority, search and seizure, due process--these are not trivial matters, and they are astonishingly on the table for compromise.

That's why I believe the word duty applies: even if Smith himself is not the axeman for Bush's assault on our principles, he has in most cases relinquished his position as an independent arbiter and voted to go along with his party's leader. The alternative explanation, that he's nobody's puppet and in fact is consciously for torture and the repeal of habeas corpus, is even less appetizing. And in that context, doesn't any citizen--much less one of the most powerful 545 people in the country--have not only the right but the expectation to firmly meet and repel such an assault, even if it comes from someone you otherwise get along with?

Gordon's got great hair, a lot of people seem to like him, and he's no Rick Santorum. He's been a great and giving public servant. But he's wrong for the state now, he's not dealt with us fairly and honestly at times, and he's allowed the President to put us in grave danger at minimum--actively helped him at worst. He's gotta be called on it, and I think Wyden needs to be up there doing it if he says he's going to "support the candidate" and the Democrats in the next election. Supporting a Democrat in this case also means removing a Republican.

But let's back up for a minute and assume none of this is true, and Wyden will come out swinging for the Dem as hard as he can while still maintaining some level of Senatorial decorum. If that's the case, I've made pretty clear I don't like it, but he's made his case plainly and I can respect that. But that's then, so to speak, and this is now. Where are we now? We're in the midst of a series of "Gordon is vulnerable but Democrats are chicken" stories in the local media. We're having a metaphorical tooth-pull of a time trying to coax strong state candidates into the race against Smith. And today, bless him, Steve "Ultimate Bong Hit of a Pipe Dream" Novick enters the race in a candidacy which I think is richly deserving of Senate represenation, but which is likely to be viewed by the media and Republicans as a curiosity at best, a sign of weakness of the Dem field at worst.

So in this environment, what comes out of Wyden's transcribed mouth is that he and Gordo will do their respective "we back our party's guy" dances at election time, but he won't say anything bad about Smith because they work so well together for Oregon. Does that sound anything REMOTELY like a strong endorsement to replace Gordon Smith? Heck no--it sounds dangerously like near-indifference to the outcome of the race, as if a Smith victory wouldn't be all that harsh, since they still could work together for Oregon.

Is that what I think Kardon meant? No, but in the world of political communications, that hardly matters. It's how it reads. And coming out at this particular minute and saying "we won't campaign against Gordon Smith" is a lousy soundbite to put into the maelstrom. Most casual observers will interpret "won't campaign against" as "won't oppose," and that's 100% the wrong message to be sending.

Caveats, disclaimers, still love the guy, no primary necessary for Wyden's seat--but the big lesson from 2006 is that elections matter. They matter when the right person wins, and they matter perhaps even more when the wrong person wins because good men did nothing. We need to make 2008 matter, and it can't be business as usual, even amongst the clubby and the tradition-bound.