Saturday, October 20, 2012
Web exclusive 8/9/02

The victory of an old-fashioned social Democrat

By Michael Barone

Rep. John Dingell's victory over fellow Democratic incumbent Lynn Rivers in the Michigan 15th-District primary this past Tuesday by a 59-to-41 percent margin–larger than most observers expected–proves several things:

(1) Experience still counts. Dingell is the most senior member of the House, first elected in December 1955 to succeed his father, who was first elected in November 1932. His own experience in the House goes back to 1938, when he was a page–64 years ago! He is the ranking Democrat on and for 14 years was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee (the chairman when he was a page was Sam Rayburn). He has had a wide variety of legislative accomplishments over many years. "The issue is who has the best record of accomplishment," he said at the candidate debate July 27 at the Henry Ford Community Center in Dearborn. "This election is about leadership–you need to lead, not be just a voice, but be an effective voice."

At 76, Dingell still speaks vigorously, in full command of the facts and of himself. He seemed rested and even perky at 10 a.m., even though the House had been in session until 3 a.m. the night before and he had taken the 6:53 a.m. plane to Detroit that morning.

Rivers's appeal was in sharp contrast. In debate and on her TV ads she told her personal story: how she became pregnant as a teenager, got married and had two children before she was 21, worked her way through college and law school, was the wife of an autoworker (an assembly worker, not an executive, she notes), served on the school board in the university town of Ann Arbor and was elected to the House in 1994. "I came to Congress to stand up for people without money or influence," she said. Her own experiences, she argues, enables her to understand the problems of such people in a way that is "unique" in the House.

Rivers's story is indeed moving, and she is an appealing candidate–articulate, cheerful, energetic. She is ready with a true story and a vote on the floor to respond to any problem of the moment. But experience evidently mattered more to more voters–including Rivers's hometown paper, the Ann Arbor News, which endorsed Dingell in the last week.

There is something grand about the range of Dingell's experience and about his adherence to his philosophy over a very long career. He is an old-fashioned social Democrat who knows that most voters don't agree with his goals of a single-payer national health insurance plan but presses forward toward that goal as far as he can. "It's hard to believe that there was once no Social Security or Medicare," he says. "The Dingell family helped change that. My father worked on Social Security and for national health insurance, and I sat in the chair and presided over the House as Medicare passed [in 1965]. I went with Lyndon Johnson for the signing of Medicare at the Harry S. Truman Library, and I have successfully fought efforts to privatize Social Security and Medicare." Whether you agree or disagree, the social democratic tradition is one of the great traditions in our history, and John Dingell has fought for it for a very long time.

(2) Labor outweighed feminists and environmentalists. Dingell and Rivers both have mostly left voting records, but they disagree on some issues. Dingell has long opposed air pollution bills that he believes to be unduly damaging to the auto industry; he has voted for the "partial-birth" abortion ban. As a result, the United Auto Workers and the National Rifle Association supported Dingell; EMILY's List and the Sierra Club supported Rivers. The UAW, politically pretty weak during the 1990s, beefed up its voter turnout efforts for the 2,000 Gore campaign in Michigan, which was managed by Dingell's energetic and politically savvy wife, Debbie Dingell; they evidently delivered August 6. EMILY's List raised large sums for Rivers, which enabled her to put on a TV campaign that rivaled Dingell's; the Sierra Club helped too. But not enough.

(3) Gun control is not necessarily a winner, even in a Democratic primary. Dingell has long opposed some forms of gun control, and very effectively too. His amendment helped frustrate gun-control organization efforts after the Columbine massacre, and he used to serve on the board of the National Rifle Association. It was Dingell who first referred to ATF enforcement agents as "jack-booted thugs." Lynn Rivers, as one might expect, backs gun control, although she insists she wouldn't take guns away from hunters. At the July 27 debate, at which the moderator asked questions written out by members of the audience, he announced that after two gun-control questions he wouldn't ask any more, even though many had been sent in-presumably by Rivers supporters, many of whom, one suspects, would like to ban private ownership of any guns.

The conventional wisdom of the national press–fortified by responses to vaguely worded poll questions on the issue–has been that gun control is a political winner. In some constituencies–Rivers's Ann Arbor–it surely is. But gun control also has its opponents. The NRA sent out mailings urging members to vote for Dingell. Michigan does not have party registration, and therefore those who usually vote Republican can vote for Dingell, and probably many did. But the gun-control issue is weak not just because it has a strong band of dedicated opponents but also because of facts on the ground. While the thrust of national legislation on the subject has been toward more (but still very weak) limitations on gun ownership, the thrust of state legislation has been toward laws that allow law-abiding citizens to get licenses to carry concealed weapons on demand after showing that they are qualified to use them. Michigan recently enacted such a law–33 states have them now–and the rash of angry-driver-shootouts predicted by gun-control advocates has failed to materialize. People are learning in their own lives the lesson proved statistically by John Lott in More Guns, Less Crime that allowing law-abiding citizens to carry guns makes all of us safer–just as they learned that even tight state and local gun-control laws did not prevent a very high rate of gun crimes in America's central cities.


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