Democrats: Vote your conscience on health care

By Marjorie Margolies
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A19

Dear wavering House Democrats,

I feel your pain. Eighteen years ago, I was elected on the coattails of a popular young Democratic president who promised a post-partisan Washington. A year later, with partisan gridlock capturing the Capitol, there was a razor-thin vote on the House floor over legislation that Democrats said would remake the country and Republicans promised would bankrupt it.

I was pressed on all sides: by constituents opposed, my president needing a victory and Republicans promising my demise. I was in the country's most Republican district represented by a Democrat. I had repeatedly said, "I will not be a 'read my lips' candidate," when asked if I would promise not to raise taxes.

I voted my conscience, and it cost me.

I still remember how, after I voted, Bob Walker jumped up and down on the House floor, yelling "Bye-bye, Marjorie!" I thought, first, that he was probably right. Then, that I would expect better behavior from my kids, much less a member of Congress. And then, that he was a remarkable jumper.

I am your worst-case scenario. And I'd do it all again.

In recent days I have become something I never imagined: a verb. I hear that when freshmen enter Congress they are told, "We don't want to Margolies-Mezvinsky you." I had no idea that when I voted for the Clinton budget, I was writing the first line of my obituary.

So it is with the perspective of having spent nearly two decades living with your worst political nightmare that I urge you to vote for health-care reform this week. Here are three things to keep in mind if you fear being Margolies-Mezvinskied this fall:

-- Votes like this are never a zero-sum game.

While it is easy to say my balanced-budget vote cost me reelection, that assumes the line of history that followed the bill's passage. Had I voted against it, the bill wouldn't have passed, the Republican opposition would have been emboldened, the Clinton presidency would have moved into a tailspin . . . and all of this could have just as easily led to my undoing.

Simply put, you could be Margolies-Mezvinskied whether you vote with or against President Obama. You will be assailed no matter how you vote this week. And this job isn't supposed to be easy. So cast the vote that you won't regret in 18 years.

-- America is a strong country -- despite what the cynics say.

In the run-up to the vote on the Clinton budget, rhetoric reached a fever pitch. The legislation would, alternately, destroy the free market; thrust our economy into the next Great Depression; spell the end of the United States as the leader of the free world. Based on the clips, one might think passage of the Clinton budget made Armageddon look like a walk in the park.

Tactically speaking, not much has changed. Reconciliation is a "threat to our democracy." Health-care reform = socialism.

But none of the dire predictions about the Clinton budget came to pass. Today, economists longingly look back to the economic growth of the 1990s, the economic policies of the Clinton administration and, indeed, to the budget that launched it.

-- Your constituents are always right. Usually.

Is it possible that, while 55 percent of my reliably Republican district opposed the Clinton budget, a vote in favor of that budget was, in fact, in the best interest of my district? Can a member of the House of Representatives ever vote with a minority of her district and still be voting in the district's best interest? Is it possible that a majority of your constituents could be -- dare I say it? -- wrong?

Of course -- and that's why you're there. Otherwise, we'd vote everything by referendum.

My constituents in Montgomery County, Pa. -- the ones so adamantly opposed to the legislation for which I became a cautionary tale -- reaped some of the greatest benefits during the years immediately after passage.

This rule is equally applicable today. If a majority of your constituents opposed George W. Bush's surge in Iraq because they thought it would not lead to stability, your district got it wrong. If a majority of your constituents believed that "don't ask, don't tell" was necessary to ensure discipline in the military, they got it wrong. So if, perhaps, a majority opposes comprehensive health-care reform, they might not be right.

The moral of my brief political story is not that casting a tough and decisive vote necessarily predicts a bad electoral outcome for you, nor that the majority of your constituents is always wrong or always right.

It's that there are times in all our careers when we must ask ourselves why we're here. I decided that my desire for public service at that moment was greater than my desire to guarantee continued service. Yes, there are few jobs as rewarding (mostly) as being a member of Congress, and I was let down after I lost. But I believed then and now that being able to point to something tangible that changed our country for the better was a more powerful motivator than the possible electoral repercussions.

I urge you simply to cast the vote you can be proud of next week, next year and for years to come. Given the opportunity, I wouldn't change my vote.

Then again, what do I know? I was a lousy politician.

The writer, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is a senior fellow at the Fels Institute of Government and is president of Women's Campaign International.

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