Heath Shuler Retires

Outside the House Blue Dog Caucus, and the embattled ranks of North Carolina Democrats, the announcement today that Rep. Heath Shuler was retiring at the end of this term is being met with bipartisan huzzahs. Republicans, of course, figure they’ll pick up another House seat in a year when they need it. Many, perhaps most, progressive Democrats wish him a not-so-fond adieu as one of the most regular renegades from party discipline, and as an active force for evil on abortion policy.

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of intra-party litmus tests or the various “framing” theories that suggest Democrats would win a decisive majority if we spoke without a single discordant voice. The only unimpeachable authorities on who is a “true Democrat” in the 11th congressional district of North Carolina–or anywhere else–are the Democratic voters of that area. And no, I don’t think it can be confidently assumed, these days at least, that a Republican replacement could not do worse.

But Shuler, like Joe Lieberman in the Senate (though for somewhat different reasons) is probably the exception who proves the rule. With the sole exception of his vote for Obama’s climate change legislation, Shuler broke with his party and its president on just about everything that mattered since 2008. He even voted for the abominable “Cut, Cap and Balance” resolution that if implemented would inevitably lead to the destruction of every progressive accomplishment since the 1930s. While that’s still not grounds for being expelled from the Caucus, it sure would justify, if I were in charge, denying him any perks and privileges associated with Caucus membership, up to and including men’s room keys in the Cannon Building. If that sounds petty, too bad; after all, a guy like Shuler would probably use these insults to burnish his reputation as someone who’ll stand up to the godless liberals.

Ah, but it doesn’t matter now. What should matter now for Democrats is an effort, not just in the 11th district of North Carolina, but in every tough or even hostile district, to find candidates who can manage to reflect their constituents’ values and preferences, even if they are far from the progressive mainstream, while maintaining some respect for the traditions of their party and its collective interests as an agency for governing. If that’s impossible, well, you can’t win them all–but you can stop holding out a hand to a “colleague” for the sole purpose of having it slapped away.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.