Monday, October 4, 2010

Defying the district

I'm pleased to report that the Charlotte Raleigh News & Observer has picked up my article (with Steve Greene) on the electoral consequences of the health reform vote.  That article was based on my blog post in which I found that Democrats who voted for health care reform were running about three points behind those Democrats who voted against it.  It didn't seem appropriate within the article, but I would like to weigh in on some of the normative implications of this finding.

It's pretty easy to interpret this finding as a plus for Republicans.  They said the bill was a clunker that would be rejected by the American people, and here's a good chunk of evidence in support of that.  But what do we think of people, like Reps. John Salazar and Betsy Markey, who are in conservative districts but nonetheless voted for the bill with full knowledge that it would make some of their voters angry?  Are they heroes or fools?

Well, they may have made a strategic calculation that, while the vote would be costly among voters, it would earn them some love from liberal donors and the party establishment, and surely it has done that.  Still, even essentially bottomless campaign coffers aren't likely to overcome a three-point hit.

Beyond this strategic thinking, though, should we be thinking of these representatives as heroes?  After all, they cast a vote based on what they believed was right even though they knew it might cost them their jobs.  Isn't that something we should celebrate?  Are they like Jeannette Rankin, who refused to vote for American engagement in either WWI or WWII, and subsequently shattered her political career?  Or Gov. Ralph Carr, who gave up his future in Colorado's Republican Party by opposing the internment of Japanese Americans?  Or Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, whose vote in support of Bill Clinton's first budget ended her political career?

Jonathan Bernstein has written extensively on this subject, arguing that politicians should worry more about being good representatives than doing "what's right."  And we should be particularly wary of politicians who are trying to do "what's right," if for no other reason than the definition of "right" is rather vague.  This also goes to the more complicated question of whom exactly representatives are supposed to be representing.  Every person in their district?  Every voter?  The people who elected them?  Their party?

I don't really have answers for these questions.  I'm just not convinced that the interpretation of representatives defying their constituents is all that straightforward.


Steve Greene said...

Raleigh News & Observer. It's the Charlotte Observer :-).

Seth Masket said...

Whoops. My bad. Fixed.