Ben Nelson & You: Putting Nebraska Firstby Kyle Michaelis
No, this isn't about the lesser of two evils. This is about what's best for Nebraska and the nation. There is no doubt about it - Ben Nelson is a good fit for Nebraska voters. The people know him and respect him. In 1994, he won re-election as governor by one of the widest margins in Nebraska history. That he has been able to translate that popularity into national politics, currently with a very impressive two-thirds approval rating, is not particularly suprising and speaks to the trust and faith Nelson has earned with voters.
Few will admit it, but - in many ways - the Nebraska Democratic Party is lucky to have such a standard bearer.
Still, I would be remiss not to acknowledge and express the frustration I share with many fellow Democrats at Nelson's voting record. Last week, a report was released by Congressional Quarterly indicating that in 2005 Nelson actually broke rank with fellow Democrats more often than he voted with them on clearly partisan issues.
The Lincoln-Journal Star reported:
Sen. Ben Nelson departs from his party more often than any other member of Congress and is the strongest Democratic supporter of President Bush’s legislative positions. Those are the results of a survey of 2005 voting records by Congressional Quarterly.
Nelson split from the Democratic majority 53.9 percent of the time on key votes that divided the two parties. He supported the Republican president’s positions 75.6 percent of the time.
Most recently, Nelson was the first Democratic senator to announce he will vote to confirm Bush’s nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If Congressional Quarterly had a way to measure Senator Nelson’s votes in support of Nebraska values, his number would be 100 percent,” said David DiMartino, the senator’s spokesman in Washington.
“Every year, the CQ study underscores Nelson’s bipartisanship and independence,” DiMartino said.
Republican State Chairman Mark Quandahl of Omaha said being ranked as the strongest Democratic supporter of the president “still doesn’t make him Bush’s strongest supporter.”
What the president would prefer, Quandahl said, is “somebody who votes with him not some of the time, but most, if not all, of the time.”
Nelson, who is poised to seek re-election this year, has often differed with his party since his election to the Senate in 2000.
In 2004, he supported President Bush 81.6 percent of the time and departed from his own party’s position on 47.8 percent of Senate votes....
Earlier this month, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told a news conference in Omaha he’s not upset by Nelson’s frequent departure from his party’s position.
Nelson is “very conservative (and) a person who votes his conscience,” Reid said. When he departs, Reid said, he “just tells me it’s not good for Nebraska (and) Nebraska comes first.”
The article also included the following run-down of Nebraska's Congressional delegation - apart form Nelson, comprised entirely of Republicans:
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, 95 percent
Sen. Chuck Hagel, 94 percent
Rep. Lee Terry, 94 percent
Rep. Tom Osborne, 93 percent
Sen. Ben Nelson, 46 percent
Hagel: 89 percent
Fortenberry: 87 percent
Terry, 85 percent
Osborne, 76 percent
Nelson: 76 percent
If those raw numbers don't raise some eye brows and cause some distress amongst Nelson's Democratic supporters, frankly, they're not paying enough attention. There is something slightly disturbing in Nelson's supporting Bush's agenda at the same percentage as 3rd District Congressman Tom Osborne.
Still, what might be most interesting about these numbers are the implications that result from Nebraska Republican Chairman Mark Quandahl's pathetic attempt at making them work for his party politically. If Quandahl wants to make an issue of Nelson's not supporting President Bush enough, then he is attacking one of the most prominent Republicans in the state - not to mention the likely Republican candidate for governor - for the exact same thing.
Does Quandahl really mean to suggest that Tom Osborne has not voted for the best interests of Nebraska? Does he mean to suggest that Osborne is out-of-touch with Nebraska voters? That certainly seems to be what he's saying because these numbers don't leave much room for interpretation.
That no one has called Quandahl on this blatant double-standard is just another example of the Nebraska press' complete incompetence. I dare say both Tom Osborne and Ben Nelson deserve an apology.
But back to the question at hand - to what extent should we as Democrats and progressives embrace Nelson this election year?
Perhaps some of the candidates comments on filing for re-election can provide some guidance (as reported in today's Omaha World-Herald and the Journal-Star):
Nelson said he considered not seeking a second term but decided there was more work to be done on health care, defense and border security issues and that his "leadership style" was needed.
Nelson has taken some criticism in letters to newspapers and elsewhere for supporting Bush's recent Supreme Court nominees and the Republican president's tax-cut proposals.
Nelson said he believes it is important to work with people on both sides of the political aisle.
"The last thing the people in Nebraska want is a political lap dog," he said.********After considering whether to seek a second term in the Senate, he said, “I felt there’s still more to do.”
Answering questions at a brief news conference, Nelson said his independent nature...fits Nebraska’s political style and interests.
“I will always look for solutions,” he said. “I will not obstruct.”
Working together with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, Nelson said, just this week he “took on the Pentagon” and prevailed in reversing an Army plan to reduce National Guard troop strength.
Looking ahead, Nelson said, “I’d like to take on a major role in reform of health care.”
Well, I'll admit to worries that Nelson lacks the boldness to adequately tackle a problem of the magnitude of the American health care crisis. I really don't know that he'll be willing to make the tough but necessary choices that will put this country on the path to sanity by providing adequate medical care to all Americans. Anything less than that simply isn't going to be sufficient.
But, on so many other issues and simply as a matter of maintaining a functional U.S. Senate, Nelson has proven himself indispensable. He is an important voice in the Democratic Party and an important bridge with midwestern and socially-conservative blue-collar voters who need to be reminded that the Democratic Party not only has a place for them but is, in fact, their natural home on the issues that matter most.
The common refrain about Sen. Nelson is that he puts Nebraska before the Democratic Party - the people before politics. Although certain to result in more frustrations and the occasional disappointment, Nebraska Democrats are asked to make much the same choice by volunteering, voting, and - yes - fighting for Nelson in 2006.
Is he a "good" Democrat? Is he a "real" Democrat? Who, honestly, can say? But I can say, without hesitation, that Nelson has been a great representative of the people of Nebraska.
Some might question whether representing the people really amounts to leadership, but I think the vital, concurrent role Nelson has played (and will continue to play) in bridging this nation's perilous partisan divide should put any such questions to rest. In fact, the country might need Nelson as a voice of compromise, common sense, and partisan restraint every bit as much as we do in Nebraska.
Those able to recognize this and support Nelson to the fullest extent their energy and passion allow are doing more than being pragmatic and practical. This is a choice of principle - in the truest Democratic sense - that puts aside our respective political laundry lists and whatever grudges may from there result in favor of what's best - when the stakes are so very high - for our neighbors, our nation, and Nebraska.
We are all Ben Nelson. There is no shame in that. He is one of us - as a Nebraskan first and a Democrat second (heck, let's be honest, maybe third or forth). For some, such a trade-off will cause considerable and understandable difficulty, particularly those who hold their political ideals so closely to their heart. It is not the easiest path to walk, but - then again - the strength of democracy does not lie in its ease of use. To reduce it to a clash of ideologies is absurd, if not suicidal as a free society. Politics must be about getting things done and making peoples' lives better - ideology can not get in the way of that, our highest priority.
To put it in simplest terms - democracy is always a matter of choices. In 2006, in Nebraska, there will be no better choice on the ballot than Sen. Ben Nelson. What more, as reasonable citizens and responsible voters, do we really need to know before answering the call to do what we can and what we must to see Nelson win a second term?
He is the only politician in the state who can make a straight-faced claim to represent all Nebraskans. If that is to be somehow held a weakness or a liability, indeed we do have a problem.