My friend Carla at Blue Oregon faced an interesting quandary over the weekend. Land use is her issue in the wonky/passionate way that tax restructuring is mine, and she thought she’d found her dream candidate for Washington County Commission:
I’ve been very supportive of the candidacy of Greg Malinowski, a farmer in District 2 who very much reflects my own concerns about Washington County. Malinowski has been an ardent defender of farmland and is extremely knowledgeable about county decisions and their impact on the community. Greg is very thoughtful and smart on this issue as well.
Then she caught wind of the soon to be released Oregon Family Council’s Voter Guide, in which Malinowski had filled out the questionnaire checking anti-choice and anti-marriage equality positions. As Carla described it, the news hit her “like a punch in the stomach.”
As it turns out, she finally had a chance to meet with Malinowski on Sunday, and came away comfortable with his positions, which while a touch inarticulate, come across as neither particularly anti-choice nor anti-marriage equality. Chalk it up to being a political novice or perhaps just not fully understanding the issues, but his values appear to be in the right place.
Still, Carla’s quandary raises a broader question about the limits of both litmus tests and political pragmatism.
For example, as Carla points out, while land use is by far the most pressing issue facing the county, there was no record of abortion services or marriage equality ever coming before the commission. So wouldn’t it be the pragmatic thing to support a candidate who was good on land use, no matter how repugnant you might find his stance on reproductive rights?
Maybe. But electoral politics is a lot more complicated than that, and a county commission win could also be a stepping stone to higher offices where these other issues would surely come into play. So wouldn’t it be equally pragmatic for Carla, a staunch defender of both reproductive and marriage rights, to take the long view, and withdraw her support, rather than help to launch the political career of a social conservative?
Not so simple is it?
We heard the argument from both Susan Hutchison and Dino Rossi, for example, that abortion shouldn’t be an issue in races for offices that have no impact on abortion policy: “I’m not running for the Supreme Court, nor do have an appointment there,” Rossi famously retorted during the governor’s race. But both Hutchison and Rossi have been named as possible U.S. Senate candidates, an office from which they could have a huge impact on the issue. Furthermore, these values are often a proxy for a larger set of values that impact policy decisions in numerous and often nuanced ways.
And most of us would agree that there are some litmus tests that are absolutely justified, regardless of the candidate’s other qualifications. For example, Carla noted “how difficult it is to find people who have the depth and breadth of knowledge on land use” and who won’t hand out zoning permits “like they’re bubble gum.” Yet most voters on either side of the land use issue would have zero quandary rejecting a candidate, no matter how knowledgeable, if he were, say, an avowed white supremacist.
So yeah, there are litmus tests in politics, and they are completely defensible, even if that means that we sometimes end up with the otherwise less qualified candidate. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and all that. But the same holds true in defense of pragmatism, for example, supporting a Blue Dog Democrat in a conservative district where a true progressive couldn’t possibly prevail. Or perhaps even supporting an anti-choice county commissioner who would do a kick-ass job on the issues that matter most at the local level. Perhaps.
In the end, Carla didn’t have to make a choice, because Malinowski turned out not to be as anti-choice as she briefly feared. But had she been forced to, she would have been justified either way.