Cathy McMorris's win here in the 5th District was a bit of a shock for its sheer size, but it will likely become little more than an afterthought in the next Congress. McMorris proved that George Nethercutt's win was no fluke and that the Fifth District is a safe district for Republicans. That her party spent so much time, effort and money on this contest went more to symbolism than it did to practicality. It wouldn't have looked good for the GOP to lose the district that had the temerity to vote out the Speaker of the House.
But aside from symbols, it's hard to see that the McMorris win will make much of difference. The Democrats never had a chance of retaking control of the House, so right away the race never had much luster. Nor was McMorris trying to take down a legend. Nethercutt, the giant killer, commanded immediate attention, which he parlayed into amazingly good committee assignments. He leaves a seat on the Appropriations Committee, including membership on three important subcommittees -- Agriculture, Interior and Defense, all three of national significance as well as importance to the district.
Will McMorris be so favored? Doubtful, especially if the party finds it has to reward a few new members who might have made a stir by doing something similar to what Nethercutt pulled off 10 years ago. A better guess would be that McMorris will become a kind of silent and dutiful voting member of the majority party -- after all, she will be expected to do pretty much what Tom DeLay tells her to do. Lacking the political credentials of Nethercutt, she'll be viewed as just another vote. As for those all-important committee assignments? Given the GOP edge following the election, she might lay claim to something significant, although the conventional assignments for a newcomer in Washington's 5th District would include the House Agricultural Committee -- a far cry from Appropriations.
Had Don Barbieri won, however, the Democrats would be beholden to him -- not that it would have meant much. He would have represented some measure of revenge for what happened to Tom Foley. He could have counted on good committee assignments; but given the minority status of his party and the nasty way the Republican leadership has gone about exercising its leadership role, I can't see how Barbieri could have expected to make much of a dent. If his party's leadership has been frozen out, why should he have expected, as a freshman congressman, to manage much more? Back benchers who are members of a weak minority can do little more than make speeches to an empty chamber and maybe -- if they're lucky -- impress the public in a televised hearing or two.
With McMorris's win, we become a political afterthought, held in line by the occasional toss of pork barrel legislation in our direction. Had Barbieri won, we would have risked becoming a political orphan, dependent on the state's two Democratic senators. So we were bound to lose either way, but our two candidates did present voters with a choice.
With all due respect to our new Congresswoman, in the almost 50 years I've watched campaign debates and interviews, I can honestly say I've never seen anyone win a race with so vague a grasp of the issues. But then, if we believe the national exit polling, Election 2004 wasn't really about issues at all. McMorris is very personable, but she never could get beyond "process." Except when she was spewing the party line about all the national stuff like health care (hmmm, good), taxes (hmmmm, bad) and war (hmmmm, they told me that's good, too), she answered every question exactly the same way: She will get people to sit down at the table.
I recall a simple question asked of her by the editors at the Spokesman-Review. In fact, the question was repeated maybe four times. She never got past "process." What's worse, she actually seemed puzzled that the panel wanted more. As the evening wore on, I found myself yelling at the television set: "Please, do you have an idea? Any idea?"
By contrast, Barbieri came prepared to answer almost every question; it was clear that he did his homework, he was knowledgeable about the district, he was thoughtful and he seemed intent on working hard to make himself and his district heard.
Once you get beyond those symbols that were always much more important to the national parties than they are for us locally, this election always seemed to be a no-brainer. If you were an independent, even if you were a Republican, you should have voted for Barbieri. He's a conservative Democrat. But that's not the point. We should have forgotten all about partisan politics. Folks, we were talking basics here! We all needed someone who would know how to get through to the Social Security Administration, someone who would know something about federal programs to assist businesses, someone with presence and bearing, someone who, despite being powerless at the national level, could make things happen locally.
The problem, however, is even more serious. Unless the moderate Republicans (i.e., urban Republicans, especially from the Northeast) decide that enough is enough and break ranks, we'll see Congress continue to be a weapon wielded by one man. The recent fiasco regarding the overhaul of the intelligence bureaucracy is a perfect example of what we'll be seeing more of: A compromise, supported by the president, was stopped in its tracks because Tom DeLay said so. Like every other Republican member of the House of Representatives, McMorris will be expected to play the role of Tom DeLay's foot soldier in fights like this. There was little evidence during the campaign to suggest that she is willing and able to do otherwise, but until January at least, we can hope for the best.
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Publication date: 11/18/04