The curious transformation of N.J. Congressman Leonard Lance
By Tom Moran / The Star-Ledger, Sunday May 22, 2011 article at: http://blog.nj.com/njv_tom_
If you were to poll all the political players in New Jersey and ask them to name the person they admire the most, the top vote-getter might well be Republican Congressman Leonard Lance.
He is not the best politician or the most magnetic personality. He is a nerd who once confessed that, in the shower, he sometimes fantasizes about debt reduction.
He is not a giant fundraiser or gifted speaker. He is a formal fellow who never loosens his tie, never speaks harshly of anyone and never, ever, has emitted a whiff of corruption.
“I really like him and respect him,” says the Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel, who loves almost no one in politics. “He really is the kind of person we need in government.”
That perception, sadly, is changing now. After serving 19 years in the state Legislature, Lance has moved steadily to the right since he started drinking the water in Washington after winning his seat in 2008. Now, even his admirers are wondering if he’s sold his soul for political advantage.
“Is he basically throwing his long-standing moderation over the side in hopes of being in the good graces and moving up in the party?” asks Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “I think it’s an interesting question, and one no one would have asked about Leonard Lance five years ago.”
Lance, 58, says he hasn’t changed a bit, but facts are hard things to ignore.
He once vehemently supported a cap-and-trade bill to fight climate change, and now he’s against it. He even voted to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate carbon emissions in more measured ways, giving aid and comfort to the troglodytes who see climate change as a hoax.
A pro-choice Republican going way back, he voted recently to cut off all funding for Planned Parenthood, even those clinics that provide health care with no abortion services.
A leading voice for bipartisan cooperation in Trenton, he has attached himself to Washington’s most uncompromising fire-breathers on the biggest fight of the day — the budget.
The plan drafted by Republican leaders didn’t go far enough for Lance. He supported the tea party budget, which would savage programs such as food stamps and health care for the poor, eliminate funding for the arts and public broadcasting, and reduce taxes. And yes, those lower taxes would benefit mostly the rich.
This plan was too ferocious for every other Republican in the New Jersey delegation, with the exception of Rep. Scott Garrett, an anti-government ideologue who even opposed aid for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
“There aren’t a lot of moderates left,” says Stu Rothenberg of the respected Rothenberg Political Report. “We are certainly seeing Republicans who you don’t think of temperamentally as tea party people getting swept up in this.”
Lance, of course, doesn’t see it this way at all. So let’s hear him out.
DEFENDING HIS RECORD
“Sometimes, people forget my record of fiscal conservatism on major issues in the state Legislature,” he says. “The greatest example is my voting against the pension borrowing scheme in 1997.”
This was one of those moments that earned Lance his reputation. He was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Gov. Christie Whitman had proposed a plan to borrow billions of dollars to fund the pension system, a move that conveniently allowed her to skip payments and slam her successor with the bill.
While most Republicans obeyed, and the measure passed, Lance saw it as a scam and said so.
His partisan colleagues were not amused. Lance was dumped as chairman of the committee, a punishment for being principled. Later, he sponsored the drive to enact a ban on state borrowing without voter approval.
“The greatest issue confronting this country is the level of debt,” Lance says.
As for his dance with Garrett on the budget, he says the Republican plan drafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan inches too slowly toward balance.
“And I think taxes are quite high enough,” Lance says.
On climate change, he says his flip-flop is based on his concern that China and India won’t enact restrictions of their own.
“I see no indication that they want to discuss this,” he says. “We cannot be put at a disadvantage against them.”
And Lance still defects from the Republican Party on a range of environmental issues. Most recently, he was one of a handful of Republicans who voted against the plan to rush offshore drilling projects, including off the coast of New Jersey.
“I’ve always tried to vote my conscience,” he says.
The explanations, even if heartfelt, are not satisfying. Lance had to know from the start that China and India were insisting that the West restrict global warming emissions first, a reasonable demand when you consider we are the ones who pumped the atmosphere full of carbon over the past few centuries, and they still have crippling levels of poverty despite their recent growth.
And yes, Lance has always been a debt hawk. But in Trenton, he never pushed cuts that would target the poor so heavily, while saving the rich from harm. Nor did he ally himself with extremists. He was the guy who could talk to both sides.
And if debt is the real concern, why is Lance siding with those who insist on clinging to the Bush tax cuts, and even adding some new ones? That deepens the debt, as we’ve seen over the past decade. And it makes a deal with Democrats basically impossible.
As for defunding Planned Parenthood, Lance never favored public funding for abortions. But he never went after Planned Parenthood either.
This is not the Leonard Lance we knew in Trenton. The real question is, what inspired the change?
Here’s the crudest explanation: Lance was challenged by tea party candidates in the 2010 primary and won with only 56 percent of the vote, so he wants to protect his right flank. He represents the 7th District, which stretches across Central Jersey like a belt.
But with redistricting coming, he could be put in a new district with Garrett and have to compete for conservative votes.
Add to this the pressure from his own caucus in Washington to move right. Lance knows the history of moderate Jersey Republicans getting kneecapped by conservatives in Washington, and the mood today is even fiercer.
“Nobody wants to be the outlier in his own party,” Baker says. “The idea of being a member of the club is important.”
Did Lance calculate this shift? Did he set a price on his own principles?
Not likely. It just doesn’t fit with Lance’s history and character. The process is more subtle.
“They don’t get a sheet of paper and say, ‘If I vote this way, the pro-lifers won’t like me, or the AFL-CIO won’t like me.’?” says Rothenberg. “But I do think they pick up the frequency. And a good politician has his antennae up all the time.”
Whatever the reason, the rightward shift is disheartening to those who have spent years in Lance’s cheering section.
“I’m concerned for the country when even someone like Leonard is voting against his own principles,” Tittel says. “There’s an old adage that says Congress has ruined many a good man. And I’m concerned that could happen to Leonard.”
New Jersey Republicans have lost their share of battles with Washington conservatives:
Rep. James Saxton
Saxton, an environmentalist who was repeatedly endorsed by the Sierra Club, was in line to be chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. But in 2003, Republican leaders passed him over and appointed Californian Richard Pombo instead.
EPA chief Christie Whitman
Soon after her appointment in 2001, Whitman told Europeans that President George W. Bush would cap carbon emissions. The ex-New Jersey governor was quickly overruled by VP Dick Cheney in the first of several such conflicts. She resigned in 2003 after refusing to support a rule easing controls on major polluters.
Rep. Chris Smith
In 2005, Smith was dethroned as chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee by Republican leaders after he pushed for more generous benefits for veterans.
Rep. Marge Roukema
Roukema was the senior member of the Banking Committee, in line to be its first female chair in 2000. But Republican leaders denied her the top spot. And at home, she was challenged twice in primaries by Scott Garrett, a firebrand conservative. In 2003, she stepped down and Garrett took over.
Add this page to your favorite Social Bookmarking websites
|< Prev||Next >|