Progressive Pragmatism: A Kennedy and a Dead Man

Two races to watch.

A recent article in Ms. Magazine touts the positive outlook for female candidates in the 2002 election cycle. While equality between men and women in the American political arena is still a far-off goal — and while the prospect exists that we may start the next session of Congress with fewer rather than more women — the general prospects for female candidates in races across the country seem to be better this year then they have been in any year since 1992.

In that year, dubbed “the year of the woman” by some in politics, a whopping 52 women held seats in Congress when the smoke cleared. Many of those women came from progressive backgrounds and pushed agendas rich in social issues like health care, reproductive rights, education, and the environment.

While 2002 may turn out to be a good year for women, it is uncertain whether that also means that it will be a good year for progressives. There are certainly some races in which progressive women are looking to gain or hold onto elected office. A good example exists in the Congressional races in California, where Linda Sanchez, younger sister of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D), is fighting alongside her sister to gain a Los Angeles seat in the House of Representatives.

But all races aren’t so rosy. Some of the most celebrated of female candidates are running on platforms that run counter not only to progressive theory but to common sense. And, as will be no big surprise to those of us who watched Bill Clinton morph into Barry Goldwater during his eight years in office, some of the least progressive female candidates are Democrats.

Two of the most interesting races to watch this fall feature women Democrats who ideologically resemble their male Republican counterparts so much that they may as well be swapping wardrobes along with ideas and ideals. Jean Carnahan is trying to defend her Senate seat in Missouri, while Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is poised to become the first female governor of Maryland.

Carnahan emerged as the political victor of one of the most compelling and bizarre moments of the 2000 election cycle. Her husband, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, was killed in a plane crash several weeks before the November election. Gov. Carnahan had been running for the Senate seat occupied by John Ashcroft.

Gov. Carnahan’s death occurred too close to the election for his name to be taken off of the ballot. So on November 7, Missouri’s citizenry came out in droves to the polls to share with the country the conviction that they would rather give their vote to a dead man than deal with another six years of Ashcroft kissing up to the Christian Coalition.

The late governor defeated the incumbent senator in a landslide. Jean Carnahan was appointed by the new governor to take up her husband’s seat until the next election cycle.

Ms. Carnahan has had a lot of pressure on her to perform, and she has managed to impress many critics, including her Republican competitor. Even as Missouri Representative Jim Talent (R) gears up for what promises to be a tight race, it’s clear that his criticisms of Senator Carnahan have more to do with her party affiliation rather than her personality or her politics.

Mr. Talent’s Web site barely even mentions Sen. Carnahan, and at public functions in which the two state figures appear, he has been known to show her deference. Much of this is due to the fact that mention of Ms. Carnahan still drums up the specter of her late husband for many in Missouri. “Let’s put it this way,” Mr. Talent told the Christian Science Monitor, “even the most hard-bitten consultant is not going to lean on me to go negative.”

That may be true, but Talent is not leaning in hard on Sen. Carnahan out of more than just respect for the memory surrounding her duly elected dead husband. Talent does not want to attack her because it does not befit the agenda of a conservative to attack another conservative.

And while Carnahan may not be the card-carrying NRA member that Talent is, her voting record has proved her to be one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate. She voted for the President’s multi-trillion-dollar tax cut over the next 11 years. She supported Gail Norton’s disastrous appointment to become Secretary of the Interior. She has supported only the softest forms of gun control. She voted to restrict the rules for personal bankruptcy while loosening the same rules for corporations.

She has even supported John Ashcroft’s unilateral attack on American civil liberties, going so far as to vote for a loosening of restrictions on the wiretapping of American citizens by federal agencies. She votes in favor of the President’s agenda a whopping two-thirds of the time. If not for her pro-choice stance and the fact that she doesn’t encourage giving guns to absolutely everybody (she believes, as I do, that children should have to settle their arguments through good old-fashioned fist-fighting at least until they’re old enough to be bar mitzvahed), Talent would have little reason at all to oppose her.

The Senate race is likely to be close. Missouri is a swing state, and the electorate is fairly evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans. But regardless of the outcome, the President can rest easy. His agenda will remain intact in Missouri.

The outcome is a little more predestined in Maryland’s gubernatorial race, but it is no less embarrassing for progressives. The race for the governor’s chair is usually not an eyebrow-raising event in Maryland, where there has not been a Republican governor since Spiro Agnew left the seat in 1969.

But this year’s race has has been thrust under the national spotlight because of the star power of the leading candidate. If elected, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend would be one of only five female governors in the nation. But more important to the national media machine is the fact that Ms. Townsend is a Kennedy, the true blue eldest daughter of RFK.

On the strength of her name alone, many in the media are predicting that if Townsend becomes governor, she could easily be tapped to take a shot at the White House in 2004. Townsend combines the appeal of the Kennedy name with the rarity in politics of a record without great scandal (an even greater rarity among members of the Kennedy clan).

And in Maryland, she has all the ingredients necessary for an easy stroll through election season. In addition to her name recognition, she is the sitting lieutenant governor, she has access to more money than her opponent could ever dream of, and she is running as a Democrat in a state that almost never votes Republican for anything. All the signs seem to indicate that Ms. Townsend should already be opening the bubbly to celebrate.

So how can it be that Ms. Townsend has slipped down from a double-digit lead in the polls to a measly three-point advantage in the last month?

Many commentators have offered theories on how it can be that Townsend might actually lose an election that has practically been pre-packaged for her. They point to the Lieutenant Governor’s shyness, her relative lack of political experience, her lack of charisma, and even the burden of her family’s scandal-ridden past.

All of these may be mitigating factors, but they do not explain the poll numbers. The possibility must be considered that Townsend and her Republican competitor, Representative Bob Ehrlich, are running up similar numbers in the polls because they are similar candidates.

Bob Ehrlich is a Newt Gingrich Republican with a centrist social outlook. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the daughter of a man who defined progressive pragmatism in the 60s. Based on those facts alone, there is a desperate attempt being made by both party machines as well as by the national and local press to make this into a race of polar opposites. Through their lens, it’s old money versus the new deal. It’s conservatism versus Camelot.

It’s a giant load of steaming crap.

Both candidates are pro-choice. Both want to build the monstrous 12-lane superhighway known as the Inter-County Connector, which has been proved repeatedly to be unsound for the environment. Both take hard-line stances on crime. Both support massive tax cuts.

So who is the liberal in this race? Who is the conservative? Are these even applicable labels? Which candidate gains the most for progressive voters?

Ehrlich is supported by the NRA and thus stridently opposes all forms of gun control. But on the other hand, he’s in support of legalizing medical marijuana.

Townsend supports “moralized education” in schools that would include religious education. But on the other hand, she … um … well … she …

Well, she sure does want to protect a whole lot of people. Her campaign Web site’s “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” contains the word “protect” 28 times. Townsend wants to protect our rivers and streams, seniors in nursing homes, pedestrians, victims of crime (which seems a little after the fact, if you ask me), the public health, and of course, Maryland’s “remarkable beauty.”

All of this sounds extraordinarily wonderful. Who isn’t for protecting Grandma from fraud and abuse? Who really gets up in the morning and says “I wish the streams and rivers of my state were more polluted; then the state just wouldn’t have to be so gosh darn remarkably beautiful!”

But when it comes down to it, her package is full of hot air. What little progressive appeal she has is borrowed from the legend of her father and from the record of Governor Glendening under whom she serves. Ms. Townsend lacks both the qualifications and the concerns to be Governor of a state.

And yet she, like Sen. Carnahan, has been exalted as a beacon for women in politics to follow. But where are the progressives hiding? Where are the liberal women who will stand up to these cookie cutter conservative candidates and say “Fuck you and your shoulder pads! We’re gonna run against you and run your reactionary relativism into the ground!” Where are the Emma Goldmans and Eleanor Roosevelts? Where in the hell is Winona LaDuke?

This election season will come and go, and the 51 percent of the population that is female will still only contribute about five percent of our elected officials. While the female vote has been courted heavily in the past decade, the vast potential of women candidacy remains a sleeping giant.

There are thousands of qualified and capable American women who could and should hold positions of elected leadership. The Democrats have shown what kind of candidates they are looking for. Perhaps its time that progressive groups, like the Greens, make it a point to prove that not all women candidates for office are cardboard cut-outs of the conservative men they run against.

Article © 2002 by Jonathan Ratican