Appreciating Heitkamp's Decency

by Neil H. Buchanan

In the post-midterm assessments of American politics, Senator Heidi Heitkamp has at most merited a quick mention as one of the three or four Democratic incumbents from states that Trump carried in 2016 who lost their reelection bids.  Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Heitkamp of North Dakota went down hard.  Other Democrats survived, and Florida is being Florida, so we will not know for a long time whether Bill Nelson will hold his seat or lose it to Voldemort.

In many cases, these losing candidates are not even mentioned by name.  "Three or four Democrats lost in the Senate, but the Democrats picked up two seats.  Moving on."  Here, I want to discuss the one and only big thing I know substantively about Heitkamp, essentially to apologize for assuming that she had no principles and was only in politics to win elections.  There might be other things that I do not know about her that would make me feel less good about her, but credit is due where credit is due.  She deserves respect, as I will explain below.

Until this year, the only thing that I knew about Heitkamp had nothing to do with her stances on issues.  She had won her Senate seat by a razor-thin margin as part of Obama's reelection wave in 2012, and even before Trump came along it was obvious that she would be a ripe target when she came up for reelection in the 2018 midterms.  Even assuming a generic Republican had won in 2016 and thus that his party would face midterm losses, Heitkamp seemed highly unlikely to survive.

Moreover, as a possible Hillary Clinton presidency loomed in 2016, it was all too easy to imagine that Heitkamp and other red-state Democrats would face a wipe-out this year.  Accordingly, in May 2017 I wrote a Verdict column in which I imagined what would have been happening at the 100-day mark of Clinton's first term.  There, my alternative universe included news that Heitkamp and another Democrat had switched parties to protect themselves, thus handing the chamber's control back to a salivating Mitch McConnell.

I took a similarly cynical swipe at Heitkamp in a Dorf on Law column in March 2017, saying that she "and Joe Manchin from West Virginia are surely in a panic to win reelection in their Trump-loving states," which might cause her to vote with Republicans on the then-gestating tax bill.  When the final, awful bill came up for a vote in December, however, Heitkamp and Manchin voted no.

Going back to 2016, I indirectly snarked about Heitkamp and others in a column, "Sacrificial Democratic Senators in 2018," where I asked whether "those doomed Democrats [would] start to try to defy the electoral odds by proving their independence from Clinton and their party, ... think[ing] that they can save their skins by refusing to" cooperate with Democrats.  I then suggested that, because even doomed politicians are living in denial and think that they can beat the odds, the Democratic leadership would need to keep Heitkamp and others in line by promising to waste money on their doomed reelection campaigns.

The underlying premise of my comments about Heitkamp et al. was thus that they were all self-deluded divas who would not be willing to face reality -- and who therefore would be willing to make any unprincipled move to save their seats, no matter what.  Overall, that still seems to be a safe starting point when talking about politicians of any party or ideology, but in Heitkamp's case and a few others, I was wrong.

Yes, Heitkamp at various times tried to emphasize her willingness to work with Trump on issues where they could find common ground.  That is not pandering or cowardice but simply trying to avoid being closed-minded.

But not only did she vote against the terrible Republican tax bill, she voted against Brett Kavanaugh's elevation to the Supreme Court.

The tax vote was significant because it was essentially a free vote.  The bill was going to pass, because Republicans -- even supposedly principled Republicans like Bob Corker (who expressed concerns about deficits that were incoherent but that should have made him a "no" vote) and the late John McCain (who voted "yes" after the bill was rammed through the Senate, and even though McCain had gained positive headline for calling for "a return to regular order") -- had fallen in line.  Heitkamp and the other Democrats could have said, "Tax cuts are easy to sell politically, so I'm voting 'yes.'"  She, and they, did not.

But the Kavanaugh vote was a true test of character.  We were only weeks away from election day, and Republicans were talking about using the vote as a cudgel against people like Heitkamp.  Throughout the campaign, Heitkamp and the other vulnerable Democrats had all been within striking distance of pulling off surprise wins.  And in the end, it turned out that there would be enough votes to confirm Kavanaugh in any case, with spineless capitulation by Susan Collins and Jeff Flake guaranteeing that Republicans would have at least 50 votes, with Mike Pence there to break the tie.

Heitkamp and the others at that point had every strategic reason to say, "What the hell?  He's winning, anyway.  Why should I take a stand and risk political damage?"  She, along with everyone but Manchin, nevertheless voted no.  In announcing her vote, Heitkamp was eloquent:
"When I listened to Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford testify, I heard the voices of women I have known throughout my life who have similar stories of sexual assault and abuse.  Countless North Dakotans and others close to me have since reached out and told me their stories of being raped or sexually assaulted -- and expressed the same anguish and fear. I'm in awe of their courage, too. Some of them reported their abuse at the time, but others said nothing until now. Survivors should be respected for having the strength to share what happened to them -- even if a generation has since passed. They still feel the scars and suffer the trauma of abuse. ...  There are many extremely qualified candidates to serve on the Court. I'm ready to work with the President to confirm a nominee who is suited for the honor and distinction of serving this lifetime appointment."
Note that she did not hide behind any procedural nonsense or say that she "had doubts" or anything like that.  She said that she saw the vote on Kavanaugh as a vote on whether victims of sexual assault should be treated with respect, and she noted that there were plenty of people who could serve on the Court who might not have to lie to the Senate about their pasts, as Kavanaugh shamelessly did.

What did Joe Manchin do?  He took the safe route, and he won last Tuesday.  Heitkamp lost.  Does that prove that Manchin was savvy and Heitkamp was a chump?  After all, McCaskill and Donnelly lost, too.  But of course, Jon Tester (in bright-red Montana) and Democratic senators in other red states won, even after standing with Heitkamp and voting no.  Manchin and Tester both won by 3 percentage points.  Heitkamp lost by 9.

Maybe that simply means that Heitkamp had figured out that she was truly doomed, whereas Manchin worried that this one vote could bleed the three points away that he would need.  (Tester's experience, after all, might merely prove that he had more political capital to spend on the Kavanaugh vote, not that Manchin could have won, too.)

But even if all of that is true -- and it might be -- that actually enhances my respect for Heitkamp.  The picture that I had painted of people like her was that they would scratch and claw to the very last moment, doing anything to win and refusing to admit that they were beyond saving.  Simply showing that she is a person who is willing to face reality is a reason in its own right to admire Heitkamp.

I do not mean to diminish the courage of the other Democrats from Trump-2016 states who also voted against Kavanaugh, some of whom won while others lost.  But although I had insinuated that they were craven political animals, I had made that claim against Heitkamp by name -- based on no actual evidence, simply because I assumed that she was "like all politicians."

The votes by Heitkamp and her colleagues unfortunately did not stop Kavanaugh from winning a seat on the Court.  Even so, there are times when holding to one's principles is an essential test of character.  I am glad that Manchin won, but I have lost a measure of respect for him.  (I am sure he will get over it.)  In any event, the Senate will be a worse place because of the absence of Heitkamp, McCaskill, Donnelly, and perhaps Nelson.  Character matters.