Understanding the record of a member of Congress is a lot more complicated than tracking floor votes or using the scorecard grades of various organizations such as the National Rifle Association, the American Conservative Union or NARAL. It’s much more nuanced than that.
In elections, both presidential and congressional, opponents of incumbent congressmen often manipulate floor votes for political attacks — as was the case recently with Republican congressional candidate Dean Young’s clumsy TV spot targeting Rep. Bradley Byrne.
In a television commercial posted online and broadcast throughout the Mobile market, Young alleged that since Byrne voted for a number of funding bills over the past year-and-a-half, he supported what the Obama administration was doing with the funding, including President Barack Obama’s executive amnesty, funding for abortion provider Planned Parenthood and for the controversial Syrian refugee resettlement program.
Those allegations led to a dust-up between Young and Mobile radio host Sean Sullivan last week. In an appearance on Sullivan’s FM 106.5 talk show, Sullivan told Young his allegations were “baloney.”
It is probably fair to call the suggestion that Byrne is in favor of executive amnesty, abortion and allowing Syrian refugees to come to the United States “baloney.” He isn’t out there touting any of these hot-button issues as an advocate, nor is he surreptitiously supporting them behind the scenes against the will of his own constituents.
But that doesn’t mean Young isn’t onto something.
Young’s ad points to a September 2014 vote on funding a continuing resolution, a December 2014 vote on an omnibus spending bill to fund the government for 2015 and Byrne’s vote on the House Rules Committee to allow the 2016 omnibus spending bill to proceed to the House as evidence Byrne was somehow an advocate for those more left-wing causes included in the larger bills. The commercial’s attacks were sloppy at best.
What Young should have done instead was point out his opponent Bradley Byrne didn’t do all he could do to prevent the Obama administration from doing what it was doing.
Although he’s still a relatively new member of Congress, Byrne hasn’t been one of the handful of rabble-rouser Republicans that have defied House Republican leadership at every turn based on hot-button issues. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It landed him a spot on the powerful House Rules Committee and has allowed him to advance his pet causes, which include pressing for more relaxed red snapper regulations, continued funding for the Littoral Combat Ship in Mobile and the new Interstate 10 bridge, which would alleviate the traffic logjam heading in and out of the Wallace Tunnel.
Since Byrne has been in office, those have been his stated priorities. But it comes at the cost of not doing everything possible to thwart the implementation of President Obama’s controversial policies.
That’s where the true distinction between Byrne and Young lies. And if Young could effectively articulate that distinction (which is probably a stretch), then he could potentially further his cause given the turnout for the Republican primary will be largely driven by the dissatisfaction the public holds for Washington, D.C.
There is also a valuable civics lesson to be learned from this contest.
Going back to voting records, much of the floor voting in Congress is symbolic. The real business of crafting legislation comes out of the various House and Senate committees. For years, Sen. Richard Shelby has been able to insert goodies into legislation by virtue of his seniority on several key Senate committees.
When those bills go to the floor, he can wash his hands clean of whatever self-serving language he has inserted into the bill by voting against it. The bill still passes despite Shelby’s “no” vote and is signed into law. Then during the next election cycle, Shelby can tout his “record” if needed, as he has shamelessly done throughout this primary contest.
Much of that sort of analysis will probably make the average voter’s eyes glaze over, and they will instead rely more on a candidate’s argument style (see Donald Trump).
There is a way to do both — a nuanced approach communicated with some sort of stylistic appeal — but that doesn’t quite seem to cut to the chase like appealing to the lowest common denominator with, “Candidate X-Y-Z wants to import foreigners to the U.S. and butcher aborted fetuses.”
It’s just that those kinds of attacks are generally deemed to be untrue.
In southwest Alabama, that bluster-filled approach has been tried on numerous occasions in competing for congressional seats. As history has shown, the more moderate of the Republican candidates has wound up winning office, be it Byrne, Jo Bonner, Sonny Callahan or Jack Edwards.
Granted, Young came very close in 2013 to ending that streak, finishing only five points behind Byrne. But that was an off-year, low-turnout runoff election and not necessarily a true reflection of Republican voters in Alabama’s first congressional district.
Dean Young’s campaign would be wise to recognize this and retool its approach instead of doubling down on the tactics that didn’t quite get the job done last time.