If, in good faith, we assume that Matheson's decision to join The Party of No in opposition to health care reform is not based on his financial backers or future political motivations outside of UT-2, we are left with one all too convenient and overused explanation: He's an "at risk" Democrat in a conservative district, who would not survive a yes vote on reform with a public option.
But is this an actuality, or just an excuse used far too often by Matheson and other Blue Dogs to avoid even the slightest political fight?
Analyst Ed Kilgore @ The Democratic Strategist blog parses competing essays by The New Republic's Jon Chait and The Guardian's Mike Tomasky on that very question, shedding a little light on situation many Blue Dogs -- including Matheson (more on that in a bit) -- face. And it's not as simple as the Congressman or his defenders would have us believe. While Chait argues that the real issue here is legislative timing (i.e. Blue Dogs depending on Obama's success, while wanting to distance themselves from the party's agenda), Tomasky argues that this may have become little more than a convenient excuse for representatives like Matheson. He writes:
Yes, some Democrats have to be very careful and not be seen as casting a liberal vote. But they're a comparatively small number. A very clear majority of these people have won by large enough margins that it sure seems to me they could survive one controversial vote if they [put] some backbone into it.
But many of these folks manage to sell this story line to Washington reporters who've never been to these exurban and rural districts and can be made to believe the worst caricatures. I say many of these Democrats are safer than they contend. People need to start challenging them on this.
He concludes, credibly, that any Blue Dog who carried their district with a margin greater than McCain's margin of victory in 2008 could "take one for the Donkey" and survive. McCain's margin of victory was 58-40. Mathesons? 63-34. That puts him squarely in the group Tomasky discusses: those Blue Dogs who are repeating the "I'm in a red district" message as an excuse to avoid any/all political risks, regardless of the importance of the issue they are running from. In essence, these Blue Dogs are shirking their accountability to voters in an unwillingness to take a risk.
Tomasky does include three provisions in his analysis that would give such a Blue Dog a pass on such weakness of representation. 1) Upcoming gerrymandering concerns in what is traditionally believed to be a "pro-Republican" midterm for Republican states, and 2) the "Kabuki theater" of voting against something sure to pass, free-riding on the President's success when their vote is not key to passing legislation.
Gerrymandering is obviously a concern for Matheson, but the conventional wisdom of "off year" midterms for a majority party are contradicted heavily by polling. Democrats still enjoy the confidence of the public, nationally, and all signs point to a non-traditional midterm, in which the majority party retains it's majority. If redistricting in Utah remains in the hands of the legislature (and lets help avoid that possibility), Matheson is just as likely to face a more "liberally" consolidated district as a more broad conservative district, as the GOP may lock him out to solidify the other districts in Republican control rather than try to weaken a popular incumbent. I think the more likely explanation is option 2. Matheson is opposing legislation that will pass without him for political cover, while quietly hoping the President succeeds without him.
And he's choosing to do that on an issue as important to Utah families, businesses, and economics as health care reform. My assumption is that some basic polling was done, and a majority opposed a public option. Instead of stepping out of his safety zone to educate and change minds -- and therefore help other Democrats succeed with increased popularity and changed public opinion -- he, like a box turtle, chose instead to crawl back to safety and run away from the political challenge he would have survived in the end, rather than cast a principled vote for better health care.
We need to stop making excuses for Jim. Too often he enjoys a lack of scrutiny and criticism because he is our only federal delegate with a D. And often, we make those excuses for him at the expense of the party's image, forsaking the opportunity to not only influence him to do what is right, but also change the image -- so often based on low information and propaganda easily swallowed -- of the Democratic Party in this state, and the changes the President is pushing for. No issue exemplifies the values of the Democratic Party more than equal access to health care.
Call Jim: 1 (877) 677-9743 . It's time for him to stand up.