Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Patriot in Our Midst

Regardless of how the implementation of health insurance reform transpires over the coming years -- if indeed it withstands court challenges and potential shifts in the Congress over the next two elections -- I think it's safe to say that political scientists recounting the political maneuveuring required to pass the bill will long be writing about the pivotal role played by a single member of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Bart Stupak is a soft-spoken pro-labor Democrat from Northern Michigan who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992 and has been re-elected to his seat eight times.  His personal life story is classic American stuff.  As a boy growing up in Wisconsin and Michigan, he was an Eagle Scout.  He attended junior college and eventually earned his degree in criminal justice, pursuing a career as a police officer.  He later earned a law degree and practiced as an attorney for a few years.  He and his wife have been married for roughly 30 years and have experienced both triumph and tragedy, ranging from the recent graduation from law school of their youngest son and the 2000 suicide of their oldest son (Bart Jr.).

Rep. Stupak's political life story is also classic American stuff.  He has worked on a wide variety of causes over his nine terms in Congress, some of which are frequently identified with the core issues of importance to his political party (e.g., supported efforts to protect U.S. manufacturers and to increase federal economic stimulus) and some of which are not (e.g., opposed stricter regulation of financial industry and forest products industry).  His voting record suggests a pattern of thoughtful consideration of issues, regardless of how popular his votes are with the leaders of his party or other powerful interests in Washington.  In short, a representative of the people in his district who chooses his positions based on what he perceives to be the merits of each individual issue, then takes his chances with his constitutents every two years on Election Day.

So in hindsight, it's perhaps not all that surprising that this individual member of Congress would play such a pivotal role in the legislative battle surrounding one of the most hotly debated issues in recent decades.  As most Americans are now aware, Rep. Stupak is one of the "pro-life" Democrats in Congress -- someone who holds a deeply personal conviction that abortion is the taking of human life and, as such, believes that it should not be legally permissible.  He is the informal, unofficial leader of about 12 or 13 Democrats in Congress who hold similar views.

This band of House Democrats was at the center of the recent jockeying over the health care reform battle because they embraced the political goal of extending health insurance coverage to millions of Americans, but they opposed the Senate bill because it lacked what they believed to be adequate provisions to prevent any federal dollars from being used to pay for abortion procedures.  This language had been included in the House version of the bill (the "Stupak-Pitts Amendment") with ease but had no more than 40-42 votes in the overwhelemingly pro-choice Senate.  Thus we had a good old-fashioned poltical showdown: the House Democrats could not pass the bill without the votes from Rep. Stupak's coalition, but re-attaching the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the bill meant killing it in the Senate.

Over the closing weeks of this high-stakes drama in Washington, Rep. Stupak held his ground.  He said that he remained a passionate and ardent supporter of health care reform, particularly the political goal of extending health insurance coverage to the poor, but that there were certain moral principles in life he regarded as non-negotiable.  Rep. Stupak remained a firm No vote on the Senate bill during reconciliation, insisting that he simply could not trade in his conscience and his moral convictions.  At the Eleventh Hour, after somewhere between 8-10 of his fellow pro-life Democrats had abandoned their positions and agreed to vote in favor of the bill, Rep. Stupak negotiated a compromise with Pres. Obama -- in exchange for Rep. Stupak's decisive Yes vote to get the bill the majority needed to win passage, the president agreed to sign an executive order that would essentially reaffirm the application of existing federal law regarding abortion funding (no federal funds are able to be used to pay for abortions) to the Senate bill.

The deal was struck and Rep. Stupak delivered a passionate speech on the floor of the House, explaining why he decided to vote for the bill.  Moments later, the vote was taken and the bill passed by a handful of votes . . . Rep. Stupak was clearly the single most important member of the House of Representatives to swing the outcome of this historic legislative battle.

In my view, the post-vote media coverage of Rep. Stupak's role has been superficial and has missed the more interesting story line.  I've seen talking heads arguing about whether he "sold out" his principles for his vote, whether the executive order he negotiated really has any meaningful legal value, and whether the Texan who screamed at him on the House floor ought to be censured or celebrated.  The far more important story here is that of a true patriot in our midst.

Rep. Stupak was a hero of the Right for weeks because he announced his opposition to a bill they didn't like, all while he was being castigated by the Left for not getting with the program here!  After he worked out a deal with the president and announced he would vote for the bill, he was instantly castigated by the Right for supporting a bill they didn't like and became a hero the Left for putting them over the top!

What is the truth?  The truth is that Rep. Stupak -- like millions of Americans -- embraces what Rick Warren calls a "whole life" view.  This idea goes beyond "pro life" to say that ALL human life, whether unborn or dying, is precious to God and should be treated with compassion.  So for Rep. Stupak, the health care bill posed a difficult moral dilemma; he viewed its objective of bringing access to health care to millions of Americans as an important goal but he also viewed specific language preventing funding of abortion as a requirement.  He weighed these things, sought some sort of accommodation that he felt integrated these dual moral imperatives, and then made his decision.

The point is not that he was right or wrong, that the bill was good or bad, or that the end result will help or hurt the country.  The point is that Rep. Bart Stupak understands the essence of Arete.  He is a simple man who acted with courage and conviction to accomplish what he believed to be the best possible moral outcome for his country.  That is the sign of a patriot -- and we need more of them.

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