#376 – Dick Bernard: Listening to Jim Oberstar and Thinking About Our Collective Lack of Political "Wisdom": "shoot first, and ask questions later"?

Among the many magnificent gifts the U.S. Founding Fathers gave us when framing the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States ca 1787 was the right to select our representatives.
To be sure, the framers initial draft was imperfect: only certain kinds of people could vote, then, and so on…but over time near universal franchise was given to Americans over 18 years of age.
As often happens, it is easy to take for granted that which comes free, such as voting. But one day you wake up and what you thought you had was gone, and if you look closely, you had something to do with that which you lost, which you cannot recover.
I got to thinking of this last Saturday when I was privileged to be among too-small a group able to soak up some of the collected wisdom of former MN 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar. Oberstar was defeated in his run for reelection in November, 2010 by a Tea Party candidate known to virtually no one.

Cong. Jim Oberstar, May 21, 2011


For eight years, from 1983-91, Cong. Oberstar was my Congressman. But Congressional Districts encompass much geography and several hundred thousand people, and I can recall actually seeing him in person only a few times in the immense 8th District. He always had a sterling reputation and until 2010 was easily reelected every two years.
Oberstars predecessor, John Blatnik, had served in Congress from 1946-74 and was one of the five co-authors of the 1956 legislation that led to the Interstate Highway System.
Jim Oberstar joined Cong. Blatnik’s staff in 1963; and when Blatnik retired, Oberstar ran for and won his office, in which he served with distinction for 36 years.
Congress is seniority based, and the party in power names the powerful chairs of the assorted committees.
In Oberstars case, he followed in his mentors footsteps and became an acknowledged expert on Transportation issues. A good share of his talk on Saturday was about our short-sightedness as a country: our failing to deal with future needs in many and sundry transportation areas. Succinctly, places like China, Brazil and Europe are leaving us in the dust, while we live in the past.
Oberstar is so knowledgeable that in the fall of 2010 he’ll become a professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. But rather than make actually make policy, he’s now just another expert.
Of course, Oberstar knows more than just Transportation. In the hour he spent with us he also dissected the assorted myths about Social Security and Medicare (pick the indictment you’ve heard about them – it’s likely massaged mythology).
But in the end analysis, none of this matters. Oberstar was thrown out of office, replaced with a non-entity Tea Partier with no power and (likely) almost no knowledge: a guy who railed against Big Government; a Freshman who will likely last one term and be forgotten.
There is endless analysis of why Oberstar lost in 2010, but rarely is responsibility fixed on the voters (including tens of thousands who didn’t even bother to vote). Oberstar likely won’t be running for office in 2012. And were he reelected, he’d have to start over as a Freshman again.
This is the fallacy of a “teaching the bums a lesson by throwing them out” philosophy.
Sad to say, we “pick our poison” in this country by ignoring the responsibility we hold as citizens to not only vote, but to cast an informed vote.
I am hopeful, as we enter a new election cycle, that more and more of we fellow Americans have learned that voting against, rather than for; or not voting at all, did not bring positive results for our country in 2010.
Time to go to work for a new direction in 2012.
UPDATE May 25.
It is difficult to assess the true feelings of the ‘body politic’ about our countries direction. News is slanted towards the bias of the media (including blogs such as this); polling and advertising is commissioned to help move and manage public opinion, and on and on and on.
Last nights special election results in New York State’s 26th CD at least signaled a discontent with the Tea Party philosophy which seems to be running the current Congress. A very conservative district elected a Democrat as new Congresswoman. In my opinion, this doesn’t mean the district is ‘liberal’; rather that the so-called radical right wing has taken the Republican party too far off the traditional Republican center. The new Congresswoman will doubtless serve as a moderate to conservative Democrat, reflecting her constituency. This is how politics works.
Also, last evening, I attended a year-end dinner for the teacher union local with which I began my union career from 1968-82. The dinner has been an annual event for at least the last ten years. I expected the mood to be depressed, given the attacks on labor in the past months. Rather, I felt optimism and willingness to work for change. In that local situation, too, polling is revealing what is called ‘voter remorse’ – people not supporting their own vote in the past election.
People are, apparently, thinking about what they have done.
Perhaps 2010 and its calamitous turn to the radical right might end up as a blip in the long term history of this country.
One can hope.

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