Last week Minnesota Senator Al Franken provided a less-than-ringing endorsement of embattled South Dakota Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. One of many incumbents facing a tough reelection campaign, Democrats are rallying to save those vulnerable members of their party from the growing anti-incumbent anger amongst voters. But, even in a tough election season, what would cause one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate to advocate for the co-chairman of the Blue Dog Democrat Caucus?
Franken was clear that, although he doesn’t always agree with Herseth Sandlin on key policy issues (she’s much too conservative for über-liberal Franken), there is one thing that causes him to support her reelection. “She has voted differently than I voted on a couple of things, but we need to be able to have somebody here in South Dakota who’s going to vote for Speaker Pelosi, not for Speaker Boehner," explained Franken.
For Democrats, that’s what this election boils down to: who will return Nancy Pelosi and her ilk to leadership? It’s a crass political calculation that voters must take into account as they cast their ballots this November.
A recent Gallup poll showed the Congressional approval rating at 19% and falling. Over 75% of those polled disapprove of Congress’ actions. From Obamacare to Cap-and-Trade, the massive takeover of Wall Street, and the trillions of dollars spent irresponsibly on bailouts and “stimulus,” to the rising unemployment rate (which the stimulus was supposed to cap at 8%), Americans are thoroughly disappointed not only in Congress, but in the man who just two short years ago promised them hope and change. America gave Barack Obama the White House and a willing House and Senate. But instead of improving the country’s outlook, the economic situation has deteriorated at a startling pace.
But in examining the dismal Congressional approval rating, there’s an odd disconnect between overall disapproval of Congress and each individual member. It’s as though voters think, “It’s the guy in the other district that’s causing all the problems—not my representative!” What the average voter may not realize is that when they vote for their member of Congress, they are by default voting for that member’s political party, its leadership and the policy agenda of those leaders.
Even if Congressman Smith doesn’t agree that government should take over the healthcare system, if Congressman Smith is a Democrat, he will inevitably support the Democrat agenda—the same goes for Republicans.
For the politically uninitiated (which is most Americans), there is little understanding of what actually takes place once they send their Congressman to Washington, D.C.—or their state representative to the state capital. Once a member arrives, he is part of his party’s caucus. He is expected to support the Democrat or Republican that has ascended to the highest leadership position within their party. For the Democrats, those leaders in Congress are Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. So when voters send a Democrat to Congress, they are actually voting Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid into leadership. Because Pelosi and Reid are the leaders of their respective chambers, they then control the policy agenda for Congress. For the 111th Congress, that means Obamacare, $13 trillion deficit spending, and a host of other progressive policies that don’t reflect the values of average Americans.
Congressman Smith may not directly vote for Obamacare, because his constituents don’t approve of such a usurpation of their healthcare freedom. And Congressman Smith may then return to his home district and proudly pronounce that he voted just the way his constituents wanted him to. But in reality, he still enabled that legislation to be pushed through by leadership when he voted with his Democrat caucus in supporting Nancy Pelosi for speaker.
Once in power, Democrat leadership is able to cajole and arm-twist their caucus into toeing the party line. Other members of the Democrat caucus were willing to sell out their constituents and vote for Obamacare. And as a member of the caucus that voted for Pelosi, Congressman Smith is just as much responsible for that legislation.
This is the political tactic that causes a progressive like Senator Al Franken to support a candidate who may not share all of his values. As long as Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is willing to support Democrat leadership, she will have the support of Democrats. But were she or any other moderate to leave the fold and vote for other leadership, they would lose the power and prestige offered by the party caucus.
How do party leaders keep their members in the fold? They offer them positions of power on committees. They offer them larger offices and staff budgets. They can also pull campaigns into the equation by offering more party money for reelection campaigns or they can threaten to withhold party support. In California, former Senate Democrat leader Don Perata once locked members of his caucus out of their offices when he discovered they attended a political event of which he did not approve. Leadership knows how to make miserable the lives of those wavering in their support of the party’s agenda.
While voters may focus on policy issues when evaluating their candidates for office, they often forget the messy relationship between policy and politics. But some voters seem to be wising up to the political pressures that influence their members’ policy votes.
Voters are now asking whether their member will vote for the current Democrat leadership if they are reelected to office. These are the kinds of questions and the kind of accountability that politicians don’t like and often don’t anticipate. It’s crucial voters understand not just what policies their candidate will support once in office, but the party leaders they will likewise elect.