Sen. Heitkamp will oppose Kavanaugh to serve something bigger than her re-election. Why can’t Americans understand that?

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp faces a tough race for re-election in the red state of North Dakota.
Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp faces a tough race for re-election in the red state of North Dakota. Getty Images

In a written statement Heitkamp explained, “In addition to the concerns about his past conduct, last Thursday’s hearing called into question Judge Kavanaugh’s current temperament, honesty, and impartiality. These are critical traits for any nominee to serve on the highest court in our country.” After reminding us that she had voted to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, she told voters, “When I listened to Dr. Ford testify, I heard the voices of women I have known throughout my life who have similar stories of sexual assault and abuse.” She concluded, “There are many extremely qualified candidates to serve on the Court. I’m ready to work with the president to confirm a nominee who is suited for the honor and distinction of serving this lifetime appointment.”

The reaction on Twitter and social media ranged from surprised to stunned: But he’s going to be confirmed anyway! Doesn’t she realize conservatives back home will be mad?

The seeming inability of many in the media to consider that, for her, there might be something more important than an immediate political payoff was a telling sign of the cynicism that permeates much of the coverage of Washington. Bad and cowardly behavior gets written off as “par for the course.” Politicians are expected to do what is necessary weeks before an election to save themselves.

But there is another way to look at one’s job as senator. “To be connected to America’s causes liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures,” the late Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, wrote in a farewell letter read after his death. “Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.”

For some in public office, the reward and the thrill is not getting to keep a cushy job that comes with staff, sycophants and travel. It is, rather, the thrill of leaving one’s mark, of being a mention in history for having done something brave and good and right.

Sorry, but you don’t go down in the history books because of clever tweets when you’ve simply voted down the line on every measure good, bad or indifferent the base wants. No one will be remembered (except in a campaign ad) for making the politically expedient vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Some of them may think they are doing the right thing, although the “tell” was their willingness to plunge ahead without ever hearing from Christine Blasey Ford. But when you follow the herd, you don’t get to leave your own distinct hoofprint.

I’ve often wondered why senators “who know better” (for example, who know the tax plan would blow up the debt, or who know the repeal of the Affordable Care Act with no viable replacement would hurt people) vote the way they do. Some simply cannot imagine life outside the Senate. Others can’t bear the criticism from their own side’s pundits and media outlets. Still others are beholden to the special interests that got them elected.

Congress, I hate to break it to you, is not a place for independent, courageous people. That’s why McCain earned the moniker of “maverick” because so many others travel with the herd.

Heitkamp could not bring herself to confirm Kavanaugh, so she isn’t going to. That’s news in our cynical political age. It shouldn’t be; we shouldn’t treat professed beliefs as excuses to do what the party wants you to do. And yet we do. We expect conformity (hence the shock when Republican Sen. Jeff Flake held out for a whole week), so that’s generally what we get.

Voters don’t reward authenticity; they reward slavish devotion to the tribe. Heitkamp may well get voted out. Her life won’t end if she does. As her brother said on MSNBC: “She may lose. But in the morning, when she’s brushing her teeth, she needs to like the person she sees.”

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