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Dead Center by Jason Altmire (4/10)

The health care lobbyist Jason Altmire who also served a few terms in Congress is in the opinion of Jason Altmire, exactly what the nation and congress need to be centrist, pragmatic, and get things done. What things? That isn’t answered in his even-handed but a bit bloated account of three terms as a congressman from Pittsburgh’s North Hills, Dead Center. It is a relief for it not to be a self-serving post-mortem of his time in Congress but isn’t particularly illuminating either.

Centrists always bog down on this issue. They are voices for an existing equilibrium, even when the rate of social change is accelerating. Rare to never is the case where a centrist comes along and helps find common ground between different philosophies. Their aim is typically to avoid the philosophies altogether. The philosophies aren’t going away, nor should they. This is a different issue from urging civility in discourse between such partisans, but centrists often can’t see that.

Altmire decided to run against the very popular Melissa Hart and won 52-48, and buoyed by a tsunami of voter discontent against Bush and the Iraq War, won what he claims to have been thought impossible. That is a bit of a stretch, given a tradition of centrist Democrats winning in the region, one apparent even now with the rise of Conor Lamb.

The big political win detailed from his reach-across-the-aisle style is to get a Post Office renamed for Rachel Carson. The Senator who had placed a hold on the renaming, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, said his objection was founded that Carson, through successful opposition to DDT, “killed more people than anyone who ever lived.” (p. 90) Is that extremist, or a principled contrarian view that should make us re-think assumptions. Was Altmire’s lack of ideological conviction the necessary agent to get Coburn to drop the objection? Even Maxine Waters would have been able to get that done. We need more Coburns or Waters than Altmires.

Altmire is most famous perhaps for being one of the rare Democrats who voted against Obamacare. He accounts much of the play by play which is of moderate historical interest. Was his vote principled centrism, or just reflecting his district? Centrism in health care policy – tweak existing bureaucracies – is surely less effective than a free market or a completely socialized one. Let the partisans battle that out.

After voting against his party’s signature legislative initiative, he is unsurprisingly primaried. His epitaph, after losing to Mark Critz, the heir to popular John Murtha (who wasn’t exactly a leftie ideologue himself):

Motivated ideologues were able to beat a centrist incumbent in the primary, but then lost the seat when partisans from the other side won the general election. Yet another swing district had lost its centrist representative in congress. (p 190)

To which one can only answer with the timeless wisdom of The Karate Kid‘s Mr. Miyagi:

Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, [makes squish gesture] get squish, just like grape.


Published inBooksPolitics

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