Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak got fed up with the mean-spiritedness of D.C.
The elections are over. Bart Stupak did not run. After nine terms in Congress, the Democratic representative from Michigan’s 1st District is walking away to the winter of his discontent, sadly wondering what happened to the public service he entered 18 years ago.
“It’s so hateful now,” says Stupak, 58. “My colleagues tell me, ‘You look smarter every day for leaving.’”
It’s wisdom he could do without. Bart Stupak may be Exhibit A of Anger in American Politics. He has long been pro-life. At the same time, he’s championed health-care reform. This year, those two issues came to a head. Stupak bucked his party over President Obama’s health-care bill, concerned that abortions might be publicly funded. Only when the president promised an executive order forbidding such funding did Stupak make the tough choice to vote with his party.
After this, he was called a “baby killer” on the House floor. A Republican colleague screamed those words as Stupak spoke. Stupak was thrown into the media’s hot spotlight. His family received death threats. He took venom from both sides of the aisle.
A month later, he announced he was leaving politics—even though he easily won his last election. Stupak says he quit to spend time with his family, but he will not miss the divisiveness.
“Every boundary of decency has been crossed,” he says. “The ‘baby killer’ thing? Within 24 hours, there were websites up designed to make money off it. That’s how far afield we’ve gone. The more personal you make the attack, the more money you can make to defeat your opponent.”
Stupak sees no end to this pattern. “As much as people say they don’t like negative campaigning, it moves the numbers.”
When did we become so nasty? Former president Jimmy Carter has suggested that we are more divided than at any time since the Civil War. And between talk radio, 24-hour TV and Internet news, and the collapse of civility from town halls to the floors of Congress, it’s hard to argue.
I ask Stupak if only the mean or thick-skinned will now enter politics.
“Add one more element: the very rich,” he answers. “So many good people would be proud to serve, but they wind up saying, ‘If the other guy spends $3 million, what chance do I have?’ The most money and the sharpest attacks tend to win.”
Stupak sighs. “Remember Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Those days are gone.”
And soon Stupak will be, too, leaving the nation’s capital for the small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where he and his wife, Laurie, live. The former Eagle Scout and police officer insists he doesn’t regret his vote. But he looks forward to quieter days.
“I’ll be home soon,” he says. “And if someone stops me in the grocery store and starts yelling at me over health care, I’ll just say I think it’s good for the country and move on.”
Never mind if you disagree with his voting record. What happened to Bart Stupak can happen to anyone now—right or left. As a result, Mr. Smith no longer dreams of going to Washington. He dreams of leaving it. That cannot be good for America. The irony is that at the end of the Frank Capra movie, Mr. Smith, the senator played by Jimmy Stewart, becomes a shining example of the difference one man can make.
Can we become real-life Mr. Smiths and change the ugly tone of our national conversation?