Clay Shaw has died. Moderation lost an icon.
Shaw, who served 13 terms in Congress, was, irrefutably, a conservative. But his conservatism was of a time and a philosophy and a demeanor that abided bipartisan compromise. Another difference: Rep. Shaw got things done.
Imagine, in this era of ferocious, militant ideological gridlock, a Republican congressman daring to reprise the radio ad Shaw ran during his 2006 reelection campaign. “The greatest moments of the Clinton years came when Democrats and Republicans worked together,” said the radio voice. “Like welfare reform. . . . Signed by Bill Clinton and written by our congressman, Clay Shaw.’’
Substitute “Obama” for “Clinton” in a contemporary campaign and the ideologue heads that dominate modern politics would explode.
The Fort Lauderdale congressman, who died Tuesday, was both an architect of the bipartisan welfare reform bill that Clinton signed in 1996 and a sponsor of a Social Security bill that eased earning restrictions for seniors collecting benefits — a bill that wouldn’t get a committee hearing, much less a vote, in today’s House of Representatives.
He bucked a Republican president to favor stem-cell research and oppose a Social Security privatization scheme. Imagine a modern “conservative,” ever mindful that Tea Party operatives monitor public utterances for impure thoughts, besmirching a proposed state constitutional amendment that would open the Florida coast to oil drilling. Yet Shaw asked, “Would we allow oil rigs on the rim of the Grand Canyon? At the foot of Old Faithful? This goes way too far and could mean the mass destruction of our beaches.”
Here was a conservative Republican best known as a defender of the Everglades, an ally with Democratic Sen. Bob Graham in pushing the Everglades Restoration Act. He accused his Democratic opponent in 2006 of taking money from “Big Sugar” and forsaking the Everglades clean-up.
If the Everglades crusade depicted Shaw’s environmentalism on a grand scale, he also had his micro concerns. The congressman once called me to despair that the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale was cutting down live oaks along its front wall because an architect decided that royal palms would better complement the building’s design. He talked trees with an enthusiasm 2013 politicians reserve for polls.
Imagine a conservative in the Tea Party age sponsoring Shaw’s Congo Basin Forest Partnership Act of 2004, which earmarked foreign aid (an evil term, lately) for the promotion of “conservation and sustainable use of the forests of the Congo Basin by working to combat poaching, illegal logging, and other unsustainable practices.”
Shaw’s loss in the 2006 general election was a brutal exercise in irony. The voting public had been weary and angered by the no-compromise political carping that was paralyzing Washington. But the only vulnerable congressmen were moderates like Shaw, running in the nation’s last few swing districts.
In an interview last month with the Sun-Sentinel, Shaw bemoaned the lack of moderates in either party. “There’s no center to work with, and that’s a problem.”
Now that voice of bipartisan civility, so sorely missed in Congress, has been quieted.