Tuesday, November 13 , 2018, 9:41 pm | Fair 55º


Mark Shields: Has the Liberal Conscience Gone AWOL?

In one of the most closely watched 2018 congressional campaigns, avidly followed nationally as a potential predictor of November's midterm elections by both increasingly apprehensive Republicans and guardedly optimistic Democrats, there was only one candidates debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, between the challenger — the favorite of many national liberal groups, which generously backed her candidacy — and the more conservative seven-term incumbent, supported by the unions of police officers, firefighters and steelworkers.

During the debate, the liberal challenger, first-time candidate Marie Newman, made her case against incumbent Dan Lipinski with this remarkable assertion (which went almost totally uncovered by the press and uncriticized by the challenger's liberal allies) about the solemn responsibility of a member of Congress: "We can't vote our own conscience as (Lipinski) likes to say. We have to vote how our constituents want us to vote."

In the March 20 Democratic primary, Newman — whose major donors included the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Emily's List — got 49 percent of the vote in losing to Lipinski, who, in spite of his opposition to abortion, was backed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Let us pause for just a moment, gentle reader, and consider the moral bankruptcy of that position. An elected representative's duty, the argument goes, is not to diligently research an issue and then exercise her informed conscience and her independent judgment in determining how to vote but instead to figure out how a plurality of her constituents feel about the issue and simply follow their (often uninformed) lead.

How about the U.S. war in Iraq? In March 2003, as Congress voted on whether to send young Americans into combat to invade Saddam Hussein's country, Gallup Poll showed that 76 percent of Americans supported President George W. Bush's taking the nation to war. But the majority of House Democrats dared to break with the overwhelming popular majority supporting the invasion and — led by Pelosi — to vote against the war. In the Senate, 21 of the 50 Democratic members — including the late Ted Kennedy, Robert C. Byrd and Paul Wellstone — refused to be slaves to the ephemeral popular mood and, by bravely following the dictates of their consciences, would ultimately earn the gratitude of both their countrymen and history.

In 2004, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by more than a 2-1 ratio. Was it then the Congress member's responsibility to fall in line and accept that verdict or to stand up as Pelosi and so many others did and work to change public opinion? When Donald Trump was heading off to college, only 4 percent of Americans approved of marriage between blacks and whites. Thank goodness some American politicians dared to stand up and lead on that thorny issue so that today intermarriage is a nonissue.

Newman and her uncritical, allegedly liberal benefactors, who were complicit by their silence, are absolutely wrong. Americans do not elect an automaton to Congress who keeps his finger in the air and his ear to the ground. They elect someone who dares to listen, to learn and to lead and who has the courage to listen to her conscience.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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