Is this how it was supposed to work? A person runs for Congress from somewhere in Texas. The candidate is not exactly called from the plow to serve briefly in the public arena. She or he has already established a public life back home—the school board, city council, mayor of Lubbock, the community development foundation—and now Congress seems like the logical next step. She gets through the primary by taking out ads that say the incumbent voted with Barack Obama 84% of the time. Another ad says the incumbent supports late term abortions. Neither of these things is actually true, but they stick and now she’s the Democratic candidate for the fourth district. Suddenly and literally, the national Democratic machine comes rolling in—money, pollsters, PR firms, video teams, political strategists, speechwriters, fundraisers—and they all start to groom her for the November election, though they don’t know Lubbock from London or Lisbon or even Laredo, and they have no appreciation for the history and heritage of west Texas.
She gets a makeover, though she is uncomfortable with that and even offended. She’s told that she must not talk about closing Guantanamo Bay anymore because it doesn’t poll well in Texas. She’s told to go after her opponent’s position on capital punishment and to imply that he is soft on crime when she knows this is not really true. She’s told to attack, attack, attack. Videos are made of her out in soybean fields talking with a cluster of farmers, laughing, running seeds through her hands, even though she has never been on a farm in her life. In another video she is shown drinking a beer in a fire station with a bunch of laughing first responders even though she doesn’t drink beer and has never been in a fire station. In the debates she deliberately mischaracterizes her opponent’s views, votes, work, family, and life, using briefing cards prepared for her by the national team, even though she keeps trying to explain to them behind doors that she wants to win on the issues and be true to herself. She says harsh things about her opponent, and bland things about what she will bring to America if she wins.
In November she does win, and she’s off to Washington to represent the great state of Texas. In her quiet moments, she keeps thinking about the Biblical passage, Mark 8:36, what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? But she won, and now she’s ready to do good things for the people of Lubbock.
She has barely been sworn in in the well of the House chamber when she’s instructed by her re-election committee to spend every Thursday afternoon making fundraising calls to big donors. She sets up a reasonably efficient constituent services system in her office, but most of her time is spent with Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Agriculture, Pharmaceuticals, for-profit Hospitals, Railroads, Pipeline executives, Gambling Casinos, Freighter companies, and Port Authorities. Sure, she’s photographed with the Panhandle high school basketball champions and with the Girl Scouts of her adopted home town, but most of her time she finds herself dedicated—on steroids—to Calvin Coolidge’s adage that the business of America is business. She spends so much time with very rich and powerful people who tell her how to vote by pretending that they are not really telling her how to vote that she just collapses into a chair at the end of the day.
In every policy meeting, no matter what the issue, her political staff talks her out of her natural reaction to the problems of the majority of the people in her district, aligns her with corporate interests, teaches her how to spin her vote as somehow in the interests of average citizens, and repeats to her, fifty times a day, “you cannot do any good for them if you don’t get yourself re-elected.” Her biggest fear is that she will be “primaried” from the right or left in her own party, so she shapes every vote, every Tweet, every public statement, with the sole goal of preventing opposition from forming a critical mass.
She soon learns that she is not in any way a free representative of the people. Every day on every issue she faces pressures from her party’s Congressional caucus, which wants the Democrats in Congress to vote as a block, except on a handful of throwaway issues; pressures from her re-elect staff who care about nothing but her re-election and worry constantly that she is going to “go off the reservation” as they put it, and vote her conscience or have her own thoughts about public policy; and pressure from her big donors, who expect her to vote for their interests on every issue and be their champion in public, too. She sees average Texans mostly in the airport gate area where she nods and pretends to listen to their little concerns. In the course of her two years in Congress, nobody ever says, “I hope you’ll think about it, and do the best thing for the people of our district—or the people of Texas—or the people of America.”
A call from a single mother trying to get the city bus to stop closer to her neighborhood probably doesn’t get through. A call from a coal fired power plant seeking an exception to a provision of the Clean Air Act gets through every time. A call from a rancher whose cattle are being spooked by B-1 bomber runs from a nearby air force base gets assigned to an intern, but a call from the Panhandle NRA goes right in to the Congresswoman. A call from a distraught father talking about his son who is addicted to opioids gets referred to a staff member, but the call from a lobbyist of one of the big pharmaceutical companies leads to a dinner meeting in a posh Georgetown restaurant.
On her night stand is a copy of the Federalist Papers, but it hasn’t been opened in months.
She votes to affirm a mediocre man for a federal judgeship because her caucus says he is reliably pro-choice, and she votes against a superb jurist for a federal judgeship because her caucus says he once wrote a law review paper questioning funding for Affirmative Action.
Most mornings when she gets to the office and interns bring in her double caramel macchiato and her cranberry orange scone, the copy of the Lubbock Dispatch put ostentatiously on top of the New York Times and Washington Post, and her senior staff starts to go over the day’s events and the headlines in the New York Times, she asks, again and again, “what’s my position on this?” And then the meeting with the 4H team of Wheat City, Texas. She flies to Washington D.C. mid-day Monday, works Tuesday, Wednesday, and part of Thursday in the capitol, and then flies back to her district for Cottonwood Days at Wind City, dinner with the president of the Texas community college association, meetings with natural gas executives, and a half-day retreat with her exploratory committee for a US Senate run.
Is this what we had in mind?
From time to time she falls into depression and realizes that she doesn’t really represent any of the people she got into politics to represent, but then she thinks about how much more power and independence she will have once she gets to the United States Senate.
Senate Chamber image from New York Public Library Digital Collections.