What Bart Stupak Got Right

What Bart Stupak Got Right

The congressman deserved criticism for manipulating the health care debate. But his anti-corporate and anti-war stances, among others, will be missed.


Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, who everyone hated at some point or another during the fight over health-care reform, has decided not to seek reelection this fall.

Stupak angered many of his fellow Democrats when he sought to use the reform legislation to extend the existing restrictions on the use of federal money to pay for abortions.

That position made Stupak a villain among pro-choice groups in particular and to health care reformers in general, while he was hailed as a principled hero not just by anti-choice groups but by conservatives who wanted to block any reform.

When President Obama agreed to issue an executive order affirming the existing limits on federal funding for the termination of unwanted pregnancies, however, Stupak not only voted for the legislation but made an ardent defense of it when Republicans cynically attempted to exploit the abortion issue in the final ham-handed attempt to derail reform.

Suddenly, Stupak was a villain among anti-choice groups and opponents of reform. And top Democrats — including Obama — hailed him as a hero who had played a critical role in closing the deal for reform.

It was all very complicated, and a little bit embarrassing for Stupak, who seemed at one point or another to be a pawn in everyone’s game.

So, now, Stupak’s leaving.

Plenty of commentators (on the right and the left) are saying: Good riddance. But I am not prepared to be quite so dismissive of a congressman whose record is far more nuanced than most of the coverage of Stupak has suggested.

In my reporting on the health-care reform fight, I followed Stupak’s machinations closely and critically. As the fight was playing out, and in subsequent appearances on cable shows and Bill Moyers Journal, I objected to Stupak and others who approached reform in a piecemeal fashion — claiming to support expanding access to health care except when it came to reproductive health services, programs for immigrants or a public option.

To my mind, Stupak’s approach to the whole process of crafting and passing health-care reform legislation was misguided.

On a host of other issues, however, the congressman has been far sounder. And I worry that his seat will fall to someone–a Republican or a Democrat–who is not nearly as right as Stupak has been on a host of consequential issues.

The notion that Stupak served as a conservative Democrat was always wrong.

He is not a conservative Blue Dog, nor has he been an ally of the pro-corporate New Democrat Coalition.

In fact, Stupak has been one of the steadiest critics of corporate power in Congress. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, normalization of trade relations with China and every other Wall Street-sponsored trade deal. He has supported moves to quit the World Trade Organization and end NAFTA, working with some of the most progressive members of the House (including Oregon’s Pete DeFazio and Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich) to highlight abuses of workers, the environment and human rights.

With Kucinich, DeFazio and other Wall Street critics, he opposed the fall 2008 bank bailout legislation and he has been one of the chief congressional allies of fights by labor, consumer and environmental groups to regulate speculation–especially in communities futures markets.

Consider this:

In 2002, Stupak was one of the few Democrats from an overwhelmingly rural district to vote against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq. He has steadily opposed attempts by Republicans and conservative Democrats to label the Iraq invasion as a part of the “war on terror.” Indeed, he supported investigating the impeachment of George W. Bush for lying about the “need” to go to war in Iraq.

Stupak has been a consistent critic of moves to make the Patriot Act permanent and has been a strong supporter of congressional interventions to block abuses in intelligence gathering and restrict abuses by the CIA.

Stupak supported gay and lesbian rights, backing legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and opposing moves to amend the Constitution with a narrow definition of marriage.

Stupak has been a big backer of civil rights and voting rights for the District of Columbia. He’s also been a steady supporter of equal pay for women and extension of domestic violence protections.

Stupak has been one of the House’s steadiest supporters of education funding, a defender of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and a staunch critic or privatization of public services.

Stupak’s lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO is 98 percent, and most years he’s at 100 percent.

Stupak’s one of the few members of the House who has consistently declared that health care is “a right, not a privilege." He refused to sign up for federal health care benefits when he was elected in 1992 because he said members of Congress get the benefits until they enact a universal health care for all Americans.

The point here is not to suggest that Stupak deserves a pass for his machinations during the health-care debate. He was wrong in his thinking and his approach, and I was pleased when a local progressive, Connie Saltonstall stepped up to make that point. (Saltonstall proposed to challenge Stupak in the primary and remains a contender for the seat, which is now expected to attract a number of other Democratic and Republican candidates.)

But Stupak has not been wrong in his thinking or his approach to every issue. In fact, when it came to debates about going to war in Iraq, protecting the rights of gays and lesbians, preventing privatization and challenging corporate power, he’s been more right than many Democrats.

To be sure, we should hope that Stupak’s replacement will be more supportive of reproductive rights.

But we should hope, as well, that Stupak’s replacement will maintain his independent and often very progressive stances on a host of other issues.

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