One-Party State

A fellow named Edward Markey has just been elected senator by the good folks of Massachusetts, who picked Markey to succeed John Kerry, who surrendered his seat in February to be secretary of state.

The run-up to yesterday’s special election yielded extremely limited interest all the way through, with the commonwealth’s attention being largely focused on the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.  Indeed, awareness of Tuesday’s vote was so tepid that both candidates were compelled to expend considerable resources simply to remind voters which day the election was to be held.

While we could drone on ad infinitum about how depressing it is that Americans take their most sacred rights so much for granted that they sometimes forget about them entirely, the fact is that the Massachusetts election never carried anything in the way of real tension or urgency, its result never much in doubt.

Markey’s opponent, Gabriel Gomez, was by no means lacking in positive appeal.  The son of immigrants, Gomez graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy to become an aircraft carrier pilot and later a Navy SEAL.  After retiring from the Armed Forces, he embarked upon a business career that has proved quite profitable.

However, Gomez was persistently (and fatally) handicapped in the campaign by his most marked characteristic of all:  He is a Republican.

What is worse, his opponent, Markey, is a Democrat.

Considerable scholarship has been done on the eternally complicated balancing act that is required for a Republican to win elected office in a state such as Massachusetts, where a highly disproportionate number of voters are registered with the other team.

The “trick” is simple enough:  Pledge to cut taxes and not restrict the rights to abortion and same-sex marriage.  As in so much of America, to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative allows one a fighting chance for electoral success regardless of party affiliation.

All the same, events such as Scott Brown’s victory in the 2010 vote to replace Ted Kennedy are exceptions to the rule.  In the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a score of 128-32; and in the State Senate, 32-4.

What I would argue, in the context of the special election just past, is that far more alarming than the inherent disadvantage in being a Massachusetts Republican is the inherent advantage in being a Massachusetts Democrat.

Case in point:  What was arguably the most substantively damning charge against Markey was simultaneously the most advantageous.

That is, the assertion that in his 37 years as a U.S. congressman, Markey had not once bucked the party line on any major legislation on any major issues.  Time and again, he proved a reliable rubber stamp for Democrats in Washington, with seemingly no interest in assuming a contrary view.

According to conventional wisdom, such a record is supposed to be the kiss of death.  In every last opinion poll, Americans claim to value nothing so much as bipartisanship, and will vote with happy abandon for those who credibly vow to “cross the aisle” in the interest of “getting things done.”

This week in Massachusetts?  Not so much.  In a state with more than three registered Democrats for every registered Republican, compromise is all well and good, but you know what is even better?  Liberalism, that’s what.

The people of Massachusetts were told a vote for Markey was a vote for every Democratic Party policy in the book, and they responded, “Yes, please.”

On an individual basis, this is entirely rational.  I cannot hear myself dissuading someone from voting for a candidate with whom he or she agrees on practically every issue.

Yet I despair, nonetheless, that the “D” at the end of a candidate’s name makes his or her ultimate victory more or less inevitable, just as it is still very much true that the word “Kennedy” at the end of a candidate’s name ensures the same.

This trend, as long as it persists, tends to engender a sense of entitlement amongst its benefactors and a sense of bitterness amongst those not already in the club.  Members of the first group are given every last benefit of the doubt by John Q. Voter, while those in the latter are provided none at all, and must prove themselves far more rigorously as a consequence.

Somehow this does not seem fair.  No election should be a foregone conclusion, not least on the basis of party affiliation.  No instance of the mass exercise of the right to vote should be so assured as to empower a lowly scribbler to muse upon the meaning of the results—as this particular scribbler has—before said results have even trickled in.

Advertisements

Moral Vanity

One of the great challenges in running for office is the necessity to sell one’s virtues to the voting public while also, paradoxically, maintaining an aura of humility.  People tend not to admire political figures (or non-political figures) who come off as a trifle too self-regarding, and yet it is the nature of campaigning to explain to everyone how wonderful you are.

Gabriel Gomez, the Republican candidate in the special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, is finding it especially difficult to square this particular circle.

For a while, any great interest in the race to replace John Kerry in the Senate appeared to be one more casualty of the Boston Marathon bombing.  The party primaries were held two weeks after the attack, and attention was severely limited.  The candidates, for their part, made themselves relatively scarce, with the myriad angles of the Marathon’s aftermath sucking all the oxygen from the room.

Now, with the nominees chosen and the general election scheduled for June 25, the campaign has proceeded full steam ahead, and any fears that this would turn into a sober, issues-based affair have been duly squashed over the past couple of days.

The particular spat that has gotten the nastiness rolling—uninteresting except for what it reveals about the players involved—began with an advertisement by the Democratic candidate, Ed Markey, which assailed his opponent, Gomez, for involving  himself with a group that accuses President Obama of politicizing the killing of Osama bin Laden.  For several seconds of this ad, an image of Gomez sits on the left side of the screen while one of bin Laden floats in from the right.

Team Gomez, testing the general gullibility of Massachusetts voters, ran a TV spot in response saying Markey’s ad “compared [Gomez] to bin Laden.”  In an interview, Gomez himself continued the thought by postulating that, in doing so, Markey was “pond scum.”

And the tone of the race was set.

What lends this silly campaign flash point an added level of intrigue is Gomez’s distinction as a retired Navy SEAL.  He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as an aircraft carrier pilot before joining the SEALs, where he rose to be a platoon commander.  His military career totaled 13 years before he moved on to his current vocation as a businessman.

It is a highly impressive background, by any standard.  As a Senate candidate, Gomez would be crazy not to underline it as a demonstration of his physical fortitude and dedication to his beloved country.

The question, then, is when to stop.  To recognize the point at which promoting one’s history of service begins actually to hamper, rather than help, one’s campaign.

In reacting to Markey’s supposed “comparison” of bin Laden to him, Gomez phrased his disgust thusly:  “To put me next to bin Laden?  A former SEAL—maybe he doesn’t realize who actually killed bin Laden.  The SEALs did.”

We have seen this rhetorical sleight-of-hand before:  I served in the U.S. Armed Forces; therefore, anything I do or say relating to the military is axiomatically beyond reproach, and any related criticism by my opponent is beyond the pale.

During the 2008 presidential race, columnist George Will coined the term “moral vanity” to describe this attitude as it applied to Senator John McCain—the idea that one’s particular background on a particular issue cannot possibly be questioned, and especially not by those who lack the same experience themselves.

This is a decidedly unattractive quality to possess, as it would seem to rule out any honest debate on a given subject right at the outset.  After all, if one candidate has such moral superiority about this or that issue, why trouble ourselves arguing over it?  Why can’t Candidate B just accept Candidate A’s inherent rightness and move on?

Further—to my initial point—the person who commits such transgressions against intellectual openness tends ultimately only to inflict political harm upon himself, by creating the impression of having drunk one’s own Kool-Aid, and thus lacking the modesty and self-doubt that are essential in building good character and a good leader.

Gabriel Gomez served an honorable Naval career, of which everyone ought to be made aware and no one has any cause to put down.  Of the rightness of his views on the issues—military and otherwise—well, let us be the judges of that.

Voting on Rights

“If the people of Massachusetts do not want that terrorist to be buried on our soil, then it should not be.”

So said Ed Markey, the Massachusetts congressman and current Democratic Senate candidate, on the continuing saga of what to do with the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Tsarnaev, you will recall, was the mastermind of the Boston Marathon bombing who was lucky enough to get himself shot by police and subsequently run over by a Mercedes driven by his brother and co-conspirator, Dzhokhar.

Following an autopsy that confirmed that, yes, Tamerlan was indeed killed by a combination of bullet wounds and getting a trifle too intimate with a set of SUV tire treads, most of us assumed the story of his time on Earth had drawn to a close.

We were incorrect, as Tsarnaev’s rotting corpse spent the next few weeks being carted from one funeral home to another, as protests and other forms of public pressure seemingly made it impossible to bury him in peace.  At long last, a woman from Virginia volunteered to assume responsibility for the body, and it was duly deposited into an unmarked grave.

Even as the kerfuffle has (presumably) ended, the statement above by Congressman Markey has remained lodged in my brain, and demands further exploration.

Markey has introduced a concept that until now had never crossed my mind:  That the American people can vote to have someone not buried in a particular state.  That one’s funeral arrangements can be vetoed by majority rule.

I am slightly suspicious as to how Markey determined that “the people of Massachusetts” had, in fact, decided that Tsarnaev should not be buried there.  I am a resident of the commonwealth, and I do not recall being consulted on the matter.  Perhaps an e-mail was sent and it was mistakenly rerouted to my spam folder?

I wonder, as well, whether this policy is strictly for traditional burials, or if it applies to body disposal of all kinds.  When I expire, I intend to have myself cremated.  Can I rest assured (so to speak) that my choice of locale to spread my ashes will be honored, or will it, too, be put to a vote?

This is no idle concern.  As we have slowly come to realize in recent years, the notion of one’s personal comings and goings being subject to the whims of the majority has become a normalized part of American life.

Especially if you happen to be gay.

When Minnesota’s House and Senate voted in the past week to legalize gay marriage, the Land of 10,000 Lakes brought the total number of states recognizing same-sex unions to twelve.  While in most cases this has come about either through legislation or court rulings, in three states—Maine, Maryland and Washington—gay people were, in fact, granted the right to wed by popular referenda.

The idea is catching on.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, vetoing a gay marriage bill in February 2012 that had passed in the Garden State’s House and Senate, said he would prefer the matter be decided by voters.

Against this view, pro-gay marriage protesters can often be seen holding signs, directed at heterosexual anti-gay marriage forces, reading, “When can I vote on your marriage?”

At the core of the issue is the question of when it becomes inappropriate, if not outright unconstitutional, for a matter of great consequence to be decided by popular will.

Lest we forget, in the United States there are certain rights and principles that very specifically are not subject to the whims of public opinion.

For example, we could not repeal the freedom of free expression even if every person in America wanted to; our Constitution mandates that each of us has such a right.  Nor could we vote away early-term abortions, which the Supreme Court inferred as a constitutional right in Roe v. Wade.

America has never been a direct democracy.  Indeed, it was not until 1914 that U.S. senators were elected by popular vote and, of course, the president is still elected indirectly, through the Electoral College, to this day.

The matter with which we began—the prospect of one’s final resting place being a matter of public opinion—is so bizarre, such uncharted territory, that the Constitution is likely to be of limited help.

We are left, instead, to argue about the “spirit” thereof—whether the principles the Constitution does explicate are reconcilable with those it does not, but which we suspect it could.

We would like to think that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s case is sui generis—one of a kind—and therefore not subject to all that much legal scrutiny.

But this ignores the alluring power of precedence, and the way that once something is done once, it will soon be done twice and it becomes only a matter of time before it is an accepted part of American life.

This being the case, we should choose our words, and our most deeply-held principles, with extreme care and consideration.