by Todd Beeton, Sun Apr 13, 2008 at 12:19:45 PM EDT
As I'm based at my parents' house here in CT for a couple of weeks, I thought I ought to go check out their congressman Chris Shays -- aka New England's last remaining Republican House member -- in person at a townhall he held nearby. To his credit, Shays holds a series of these events on weekends to speak to constituents -- he held 4 yesterday and 2 today. Each event runs an hour and a half and is framed as "a conversation." But it quickly became clear to me that this series of townhalls is essentially his "see, really, I'm a liberal, I swear" tour and it was actually sort of sad.
Shays started this "conversation" by running through some sweet graphs he had made up that demonstrate just how independent he is from his party and from Bush. This is a D+5 district after all, he knows the party and the president are at the depths of popularity, but he also knows that this presidential year there is going to be unprecedented turnout among Democrats. He also knows his challenger, Jim Himes, is formidable and is collecting a daunting warchest of his own. So to survive, Shays must paint himself as a liberal, in other words, blur the distinctions between him and Himes as he and Lieberman did successfully on the issue of the war in 2006.
First up was a chart tracking his position on the liberal/conservative continuum. According to National Journal, Shays voted 52% conservative and 48% liberal for 2007. Ahh, yes, right in the center, to the right of Lieberman (57% liberal/43% conservative) and to the left of Chuck Hagel (61% conservative/39% liberal.) Next was how often he voted with Bush. After a peak of 82% in 2002, it dropped to 33% with the Democratic majority in 2007 as compared with 93% of John Boehner. Then he showed us his Republican party unity score: 67% vs. 99% for Boehner and 90% for John McCain.
The fact that he began in such a defensive crouch said a lot, of course, about how vulnerable he believes he is this year, but as he spun his answers to constituent questions, it became even clearer just what a liberal makeover he is attempting.
On the environment and alternative fuels, he bashed Bush for not acting. "The next president needs to do what this president didn't..."
On Iraq, suddenly he regrets his vote. He actually used the words "I wouldn't have voted for it if I'd known how badly Rumsfeld would have managed it." To the best of my knowledge, this is new language. Also, when I confronted him with the fact that in 2006 he advocated a timeline for withdrawal yet every time he was given an opportunity to vote for a timeline he voted against it, he made a point of boasting of his support for another bill that would have had the troops out by end of 08. What he conveniently leaves out was that that bill was not up for a vote. I asked him what a withdrawal bill right now would have to look like to get him to support it. He didn't answer.
And on the topic of what victory in Iraq looks like, to his credit he actually answered the question and it involves a troop presence of 40-60k through end of 2009, which he made a point of saying "is fewer than the 80k Barack Obama's advisor said would be there." The downside to off-message advisors: giving political cover to down-ticket Republicans.
Oh and this was rich: suddenly Shays has a healthcare plan and sounded downright Clintonian and Obamanian on the subject: "Americans should have the same healthcare choices I have as a federal employee."
You know this is going to be the strategy of many of the so-called moderate Republicans running for their lives this year -- a blurring of their entire records with their Democratic opponents, just as they did on Iraq in 06. The blurring has begun, it's up to us to call them on it. It's also really important to promote and support the embarrassment of riches that is our Democratic challengers this year and so please support Jim Himes's campaign if you can.