Sad news, friends: The maverick is dead.
Calm down now — silly old John McCain remains alive and well-ish. And I’m not even talking about his “I’ve never considered myself a maverick” comment last week. Sure, there is a column waiting to happen in that mind-boggling assessment from a man who for the last 20 years has been to maverick what a desert is to sand. (What do you call a maverick who refuses to call himself a maverick? A maverick, of course!) But this is not that column.
Instead, I’m talking about the sudden vacuum left in the realm of independent thinking with the departures announced last week of Rep. Bart Stupak (D–Mich.), who has chosen not to seek re-election, and of John Paul Stevens, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who will retire this summer after nearly 35 years of service as a member of the nation’s highest court.
Stupak — an obnoxiously pro-life Democrat from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — has become a household name of late, thanks to his pivotal role in the passage of the health care bill. Initially derided by fellow Democrats for insisting that the bill include no federal funding for abortions, Stupak rose at the last minute to support the final bill, arguing that being pro-life had to include providing health protection for the already-born. And suddenly he became public enemy number one for the Right — a “babykiller” in the words of Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas).
As for Stevens, although he is the longest-serving member of the current Court, his independent streak is, unfortunately, less known. Appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens has always considered himself a Republican. On the Court, before rising in the ’90’s to command the liberal wing, Stevens was a moderate at best, and was often an independent thorn in the side of the Court’s legendary liberals Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan.
The careers of both Stupak and Stevens are case studies in personal convictions, constant introspection and intellectual maturation overcoming the pressures of politics, parties and propaganda. They are success stories — the kind that they just don’t write anymore.
Stupak has represented Michigan’s First Congressional District since 1993, managing to hold his seat in that conservative district for nearly 20 years — despite the fact that a Republican essentially always held that seat between World War II and 1992. In a district that is larger in land area than the entire state of West Virginia, yet lacks even a single major media market, Stupak built his career by being and doing, rather than talking and trying to be seen.
A former state police trooper and lawyer, Stupak is trusted by those in his district because he has never let his party label or even the ideological tag of “pro-life” limit what he does for his constituents. Love him or hate him, Stupak believes in evaluating issues and finding the best solution — not just walking into a room doused in blue/red paint, barking belligerently about how gay marriage or off-shore drilling is destroying the world.
And Stevens, perhaps to the dismay of those who love his recent liberal conclusions, has always been an opponent of pre-set tests and pre-ordained ideologies dictating an outcome — as was apparent in his dissent in Fullilove v. Klutznick and his concurrence in City of Richmond v. Croson, among others. Freeing himself from the dictates of pre-set ideologies enables Stevens to grasp more fully the reality of a case before the court, whatever solution that may lead to.
This isn’t to say Stevens has no moral anchor guiding his work — his unflinching reproach of flag-burning, despite his general liberalism on free-speech issues, is one example of how core values and ideals do drive Stevens, a World War II veteran. But the venerable old-school mid-Westerner has never been afraid to learn and apply something new, or to simply change his mind upon hearing better arguments.
Stupak and Stevens will be replaced, but not really. Tea Partiers dancing on Stupak’s political grave will back some conservative Republican, who for the rest of his life will do and vote just as we know a conservative Republican does. Or maybe by some miracle a Democrat will manage to hold Stupak’s seat and proceed to act out that ideological script to a tee. President Barack Obama will surely appoint a liberal to replace Stevens, but what are the chances that this replacement will also have Stevens’s intellectual maturity to command a majority while remaining unafraid to go against the tide? Almost none.
Our country as it stands today just won’t stand for another person like Stupak or Stevens. And that’s why I say that the maverick is dead.
Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.