What Stupak and Stevens have in common

Both men who resigned today represent a brand of bipartisanship their replacements are unlikely to embody

Published April 9, 2010 6:10PM (EDT)

Two men have announced they'll resign from their respective government seats today: Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and Michigan Representative Bart Stupak. It seems crazy to equate the two men -- one an intellectual leader in liberal thought for the last 34 years; the other briefly brought to fame by his willingness to torpedo the healthcare reform bill over its perceived (but not real) lack of antiabortion measures -- but there is a connection. They have both seen the political scene shift around them while holding to a specific ideological bent, and neither will be easily replaced.

Oh, formally, yes, they both can be replaced, quickly and easily. Very soon, President Obama will doubtlessly have a new bright light at his side, announcing her (possibly him, but more likely her) as his nominee for a Supreme Court seat once held by Louis Brandeis and Samuel P. Chase. Yes, there may be posturing by Republicans, and yes, there may be some dirty fighting, but inevitably Stevens will be replaced by October. Most likely, he'll be replaced by someone just like him: someone who, first faced with the grand white steps and the heavy black robe, will think herself a moderate and who, after years of walking the steps and wearing the robe, will be described as deeply entrenched on one side or another. Stevens is a Republican, after all, appointed by a Republican president. He was never supposed to be "the liberal leader of the Court."

Yet he rose to that occasion. Was it because the country shifted, so that a moderate Midwestern Republican could suddenly be seen as liberal? Maybe. Was it because, as he got older and wiser, Stevens developed a deeper sympathy with those his rulings would affect? Maybe. Was it the training he had at the feet of liberal giants -- Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan? Was it simply a change of heart? Maybe. Or maybe his political identification had little to do with his intellectual, ideological thought. Maybe Stevens believed in the kind of laws that Republicans cheered for -- but in the absence of those laws, perhaps he saw the possibility, the legal obligation, of the government to care for its people. Maybe it's all of these things.

Stevens contains multitudes. Appointed by a Republican; leaving the court as a liberal. That's not an uncommon story (see: David Souter; Earl Warren; etc.).

How is this anything like Bart Stupak? Both men have actually managed the feat that's only whispered about in Washington anymore, that ultimate Olympic political triple-lutz: bipartisanship. No, they haven't organized rallies or hosted cross-party peacemaking dinners, and neither seems to have done much (lately) to bring folks from across the aisle over to their side. They have, instead, managed to be of both sides at the same time.

Bart Stupak, for all of the party's dislike, is a Democrat. He votes nearly identically to the party line (say, for instance, Nancy Pelosi) on a host of issues close to Democratic hearts: the environment (pro cap-and-trade); military and executive issues (voted against military action in Iraq); hate crimes legislation; and other broad social programs, like CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program). Stupak voted against Bill Clinton's impeachment and against his Republican-backed welfare reform bills. He is and has been a reliable Democratic vote, on all but two issues: gun control (he's against it) and abortion (also, as you may have heard, against it).

He's now retiring, in part (one would guess) because his anti-abortion stance that nearly wrecked the entire health care bill has brought him a lot of hate from both sides of the aisle. He, like Stevens, will be quickly replaced, and the process for this will be much easier: hold an election, call a winner. No short lists, no Senate hearings.

While the process is easier, the result is much more difficult. President Obama will find someone like Stevens to take his place; he'll find an agreeable, moderate-to-liberal jurist, and in October nothing (beyond certain sartorial choices) will have much changed on the Court.

But come next January, some pro-gun, antiabortion Republican will happily take Bart Stupak's seat in Congress and settle in with a few new agenda items that won't include cap-and-trade or renewing CHIP or unemployment benefits. His district has leaned more and more conservative over the years, all while Bart Stupak has gamely trudged to Capitol Hill to vote with his Democratic colleagues, much of the time. Now, they'll replace him with someone who can't compromise in that way, someone whose party won't allow him to cross the line to vote his (or his constituents') conscience on certain issues. We will lose a Democratic seat when we lose Bart Stupak.

I don't mourn the loss of Bart Stupak in the way that I'll mourn the loss of Stevens. Stevens is the best-case scenario of cross-party pollination, while Stupak has recently seemed like the worst. Yes, it's hard to say that the liberal wing of the Democratic party shouldn't throw a champagne party over news of his departure, because emotionally, I'm right there with a flute in hand. Logically, though, I know that this is the way the GOP has fallen into inflexible opposition: by litmus tests and opposition to different points of view.

We will find another John Paul Stevens, because ultimately, whether the choices seem scary or not, the history of the Court is that people who are intellectually interested in matters of justice find the experience liberating and liberalizing. There does not exist, however, another Bart Stupak: a Democrat palatable (albeit sometimes barely) to both a conservative district and a moderate party.

By Jenn Kepka

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Bart Stupak D-mich.