There has been plenty of discussion on this page in recent days about the Stupak Amendment, a last minute addition to the House of Representative’s health care reform bill that bars coverage for abortions under federally subsidized insurance plans (From the Daily: Stop Stupak, 11/10/2009; Defending reproductive rights, 11/11/2009; Stupak isn’t so stupid, 11/12/2009).

Missing from the conversation thus far, however, has been any mention of the man himself — a glaring omission, considering that anomalies like Bart Stupak (D–Mich.) will ultimately get to shape just about everything President Barack Obama hopes to accomplish.

Stupak is a Democrat who has represented Michigan’s first Congressional District since 1993. That’s significant because he was the first representative of the new first District, which emerged from congressional reapportionment following the 1990 census. This new first District comprises the entire Upper Peninsula and a large chunk of the northern Lower Peninsula — about 45 percent of the state’s land mass.

Of the 19 men to represent that region in Congress before Stupak, only three were Democrats. If you know anything about northern Michigan, you know that makes sense — there aren’t too many “Yes We Can”-ers running around up there. To represent that region in Congress as a Democrat, Stupak obviously must be an anomaly among his caucus colleagues. And so he is, taking the non-liberal position on issues like stem cell research, free trade and, of course, abortions.

But a closer look at Stupak suggests a complex political entity, someone who would benefit liberals if they keep him on their side. For example, Stupak voted to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and opposed a constitutional amendment defining marriage. He has supported rehabilitative programs for criminals, opposed drilling for oil at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and opposed a bill that would allow deportation of illegal immigrants who come into hospitals seeking care. In the last Democratic presidential primary, Stupak supported John Edwards, who — despite his later-exposed ickiness — ran easily the most liberal primary campaign of any 2008 candidate.

Certainly, Stupak’s positions on all issues are staggered within the grey area liberals associate with sellouts. But consider that Stupak took all of these aforementioned stances knowing full well that they would be unpopular with his constituents. Then consider that he still managed to thump his Republican rival by more than 32 percentage points in the 2008 election. This is a man you want in your corner.

At a time when the blue-red debate has become more pronounced than ever, people like Stupak are rare. There was a time when senators like Lincoln Chafee and Joe Lieberman could be seen as true leaders grounded in the center. But with the recent inflammatory tactics and hegemonic delusions of both the Left and the Right, moderates have flittered away.

It’s impossible to pin down one linchpin, but the 2006 election comes close. That year, Chafee — then a Republican senator from Rhode Island — was defeated soundly by Democratic upstart Sheldon Whitehouse. Along with his support for affirmative action, gun control, stem cell research and environmental protection, Chafee denounced President Bush’s war in Iraq and was among the most outspoken supporters of abortion rights and gay marriage on either side of the aisle. Yet Whitehouse was able to overcome all of that by portraying Chafee as a puppet of the evil Republican leadership — in 2006, that meant Chafee had to go.

2006 was also the definitive year in the tragic tale of Joe Lieberman. Lieberman was pushed the same way Chafee was, but he had the added burden of having supported the war in Iraq. Despite being a three-term incumbent, he was edged out by Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary, but managed to rally as an Independent in the general election to maintain his seat. And then — either out of a true change in his political beliefs, spite for the Democrats who had abandoned him or sheer madness — Lieberman became what even four years ago would have been hard to imagine: a neoconservative.

These two are the opposite ends of the spectrum of possible outcomes for the story of powerful moderates being pushed aside. Lieberman survived, but did so by appealing to the right wing in Connecticut, and emerged as part of the problem. Chafee was defeated and replaced by a Democrat who has an almost identical ideology but lacks the influence and friendships Chafee had with Republicans.

Liberals should hope that there is a middle path that current moderates like Stupak and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R–Maine) can follow. But for that path to exist, we have to pave it. To do so, we might have to let Bart Stupak take a little souvenir for the good people back home.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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