Here’s the only question for me in Gordon Smith’s latest campaign ad with the Barack Obama cameo: Does my pleasure in watching partisan Democrats tear their hair out over the appropriation of their hope ‘n’ change presidential nominee in the Smith ad outweigh my pain in watching Oregon’s Republican senator sidle up to Obama as he runs for re-election?
Here’s what is not a question: the propriety of the Smith ad’s invocation of Saint Barack of Chicago.
The ad didn’t say, or even imply, that Obama backs Smith. (Obama backs Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley.) The ad merely references their bipartisan work to boost fuel economy standards. “Who says Gordon Smith led the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment?” the ad asks. “Barack Obama.”
Obama’s Senate office hailed the introduction of their bipartisan bill in a July 2006 news release that even quoted Smith. Obama didn’t mention Smith in a May 2008 opinion piece for the Salem Statesman Journal, but that’s understandable. He was campaigning for himself, and Smith’s a Republican. “To bring about real change, we’re going to have to make long-term investments in clean energy and energy efficiency,” Obama wrote. “That’s why I reached across the aisle . . . to come up with a plan to double our fuel standards that won support of lawmakers who had never supported raising fuel standards before.”
Well, Smith was one of those reaching across the aisle. Smith was part of Obama’s “real change.”
In fact, the Smith camp wasn’t the first to make the Smith-Obama connection. It was an Oregon Democrat, Gov. Ted Kulongoski. In a July 2006 news release, he praised them for their “bipartisan” bill.
Now, if Smith were a fierce partisan, a rigid ideologue, on all other issues, Democratic partisans might have cause to gripe. Smith would be pretending to be something he’s not. But here’s a fact: Smith practices the kind of bipartisan, nonideological lawmaking Obama only talks about in lovely speeches.
Ask yourself this: On what issue has Obama taken a stand at odds with his party’s liberal base? Smith has made a career of riling up and disappointing his party’s conservative base — joining with Sen. Ted Kennedy to expand federal hate crime laws to protect gays and lesbians, breaking with his party to vote for legislation to address global warming and support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, blocking approval of a 2005 GOP budget plan that would have cut Medicaid, working on a bipartisan Senate bid to expand health insurance program for 10 million children, joining anti-Iraq war Democrats and more.
Much of this, I hasten to add, is what you might call an admission against interest — my own interest. Some of his bipartisanship helps explains why watching Smith run for re-election is so disheartening. And that was before he invoked Obama.
But “Obama the Post-Partisan Healer” is the rage in Oregon, and post-partisan healing is Smith’s stock in trade. Depressing, but there it is. Given all this, why shouldn’t Smith tie himself to Obama where he can?
Here’s another fact: Smith’s record of bipartisanship and breaking with his party is something nobody’s seen in Merkley’s entire legislative career.
Besides, working together across the aisle to solve problems is what voters, Republicans and Democrats, say they want, and it’s easy to see why. Properly done, it can be in the best tradition of our politics.
Portland’s Avel Gordly embodies that tradition in Oregon. The soon-to-retire state senator is a longtime Democrat and an African American, which I mention only because she doesn’t mind Smith’s Obama ad at all. Gordly supports them both. “I know Gordon Smith to be a good senator for all of Oregon,” she said Thursday, citing a long list of specific accomplishments of interest to her. “I don’t think we can afford to lose a voice that has worked effectively and intentionally to build bridges across the state.”
In a better day, Oregonians celebrated such independence (”Democrats for Mark Hatfield”). Now? Not so much. Gordly has paid a price for being a “Democrat for Smith.” “I’ve been so disturbed by the e-mails I’ve received,” she said. “I want people to know I have not lost my mind. I’m my own person, and I think for myself. Smith’s a human being with a conscience and a heart for service to our state. He continues to reach out in ways he doesn’t have to.”
Amid the ugliness of today’s politics, if he can elicit such praise from a Democrat, a black woman and one of the classiest acts in Oregon — if Avel Gordly can put up with the potshots from the state’s left-wing e-nut gallery — maybe it’s time to dial back the dejection about Gordon Smith’s re-election.
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