Team Players

“Take one for the team.”

Anyone who ever played Little League baseball understands the phrase, along with pretty much everyone who didn’t.

We have heard it quite frequently during the 2012 campaign.

Paul Ryan and his defenders, faced with Ryan’s uncomfortable history of voting for various debt-inducing spending sprees during the George W. Bush administration, have explained that although Ryan is personally against runaway government spending, he cast such votes in the spirit of Republican solidarity.  He was taking one for the team.

Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman who recently suggested women can’t become pregnant upon being raped, has faced near-universal pleading from fellow Republicans to cede his Senate contest to a slightly less radioactive candidate, to ensure the seat is won by a Republican.  He should take one for the team.

This adage—succinctly defined by Urban Dictionary as “willingly making a sacrifice for the benefit of others”—carries undeniable appeal when viewed from a certain angle.  The image of self-sacrificial nobility, of Rick Blaine on the runway insisting, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” serves as a healthy rebuke to our culture of ruthless ambition and loose morality.  We as a society would probably be poorer without it.

It also, unfortunately, demonstrates much that is wrong with government today and why those of us who abstain from partisan affiliation find the state of our two-party system so repulsive.

Primarily, we must explain what we mean by “team.”  In baseball, “taking one” usually refers to being hit by a pitch or tagged out in such a way as to advance the base runners and win the game, at the expense of one’s own stats or even physical safety.  We can argue about the morality of this (particularly when it involves 9-year-olds), but the logic is sound, as everyone on the team has the same goal, namely winning.

A team of lawmakers does not operate in quite the same way, despite media tendency to cover politics as if it’s a sporting event.

Who are the politicians we say we most esteem?  Nearly every voter, if asked, claims to hold special admiration and respect for those known for being “independent,” who will “stand up for what they believe” and “put country ahead of party.”  That is to say, for men and women who are not “team players.”

Members of Congress are individuals, each with his or her own views and each representing a specific piece of our absurdly diverse country.  They, like the president, swear an oath of loyalty to exactly one entity:  The U.S. Constitution.  Beyond that, it is left entirely to the individual to decide whether to err on the side of one’s party, one’s constituents or one’s own conscience, should any of these conflict.  Very rarely do they not.

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) reacted to the Todd Akin brouhaha by issuing a letter to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus that read, “Even while I am pro-choice, I respect those who have a different opinion on this very difficult and sensitive issue […] Our party platform should make the same concession to those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose.”

As a Massachusetts Republican up for re-election, Senator Brown has the unenviable task of appealing to an exceptionally liberal constituency without invoking the ire of his own exceptionally conservative party.  The abortion issue crystallizes his dilemma:  Whatever his personal views, he would very unlikely be elected in the first place should he toe the party line; meanwhile, his failure to adopt this most elementary of Republican doctrines effectively tars him as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) in the minds of party elders, ensuring he will never be fully trusted as a national figure within the party.

By contrast, the Next Vice President of the United States is very much a head honcho in the GOP, first by virtue of his across-the-board party views on social issues, and second for his stated opposition to all things big government.

Interestingly, in one such instance of Paul Ryan betraying his apparent anti-spending principles—voting “aye” for an auto bailout in December 2008, against a heavy majority of fellow Republicans—he explicitly explained that his concerns were local:  “At the forefront of my mind are jobs in Southern Wisconsin,” he said, understanding that “taking one for the team” would have come at the expense of a whole lot of regular Joes who don’t necessarily sympathize with Ryan’s usual doctrinaire approach to government spending.

Was this not the correct answer?  Should not a U.S. representative vote in the interests of those he or she represents, regardless of party affiliation and whatever damage it might do to the “team”?  And if that’s the case, what use is the team in the first place?

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