If you’ve ever been to a party where someone you respect made a fool of himself, and you cringed at the prospect of seeing that person the next day, you might understand why I’m dreading my next encounter with Pete Hoekstra.
Hoekstra is a conservative Republican from Holland who was elected to Congress in 1992 and rose to chair the House Intelligence Committee before leaving Washington to run for governor in 2010.
He’s a doctrinaire Republican who has been wary of his party’s restive tea party zealots even as he sought their support — first for his failed gubernatorial candidacy, and this year in his bid to unseat Michigan’s junior senator, Democrat Debbie Stabenow.
But Hoekstra is also an uncommonly likable and intelligent fellow who prospered in the less poisonous climate that prevailed in pre-tea party Washington. He cultivated relationships across the aisle and knew how to be effective whether his party was in the majority or not. At his best, he has been the sort of lawmaker who gives career politicians a good name.
Campaigns rarely call forth a candidate’s best qualities. But Hoekstra has been especially silly in his latest one.
This week, following another round of polls suggesting that Stabenow maintains a comfortable lead in her quest for a third term, Hoekstra held a conference call with reporters to unveil a new website — worstsenator.com — to promote his campaign’s assertion that Stabenow is “the worst senator ever” or, more charitably, “possibly the worst senator in Michigan history.”
One has only to recall Stabenow’s immediate predecessor, the competent but eminently forgettable Spence Abraham, to challenge Hoekstra’s preposterous premise.
Wade a little deeper into the state’s senatorial history — Stabenow is the 40th person to represent Michigan in the U.S. Senate since it achieved statehood in 1837 — and you encounter the likes of Republican Truman Newberry (1919-22; one of just 11 U.S. senators to face criminal indictment while in office) and Democrat Don Riegle (1976-94; who prudently pulled the plug on his re-election campaign after the Senate Ethics Committee found he had intervened to thwart a federal investigation of a crony’s foundering SL).
If you’re throwing around unflattering superlatives, that’s formidable competition
But my point is not that Hoekstra’s “worst senator ever” assertion is ridiculous; the point is that Hoekstra knows it’s ridiculous.
Stabenow’s policy priorities certainly diverge sharply from Hoekstra’s own (among other things, Hoekstra wants to end the popular election of U.S. senators and entrust that task to state legislators), but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Washington who considers her a lightweight.
As Hoekstra derisively acknowledged, Stabenow played a decisive role in securing passage of the Affordable Care Act, ( a.k.a. Obamacare). And she partnered effectively with Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agricultural Committee Stabenow chairs, to push out a landmark farm bill that slashes federal subsidies by billions of dollars.
Indeed, the Stabenow-Roberts alliance recalls the similarly successful partnership Hoekstra struck with Congresswoman Jane Harman, the California Democrat with whom he took turns chairing the Intelligence Committee as the House teetered between Democratic and Republican control. And if they were ever to hold office in the same chamber, Stabenow is precisely the sort of get-it-done Democrat the pragmatic Hoekstra would seek out.
I know, I know: It’s only politics.
And Stabenow’s a big girl; sticks and stones may break her bones, etc.
But this isn’t about Stabenow; it’s about preserving a nation in which political debate is more than a cartoon, a society in which smart people don’t sublimate their intelligence in a race to the bottom.
And when someone as smart as Hoekstra stands on the rooftop and bellows insults like a bratty kindergartner, all of us are pulled just a little deeper into the mire of post-truth politics, where words have no meaning and the people who utter them have no integrity.
Disappointed in Pete Hoekstra? Sure I am.
But mostly, I’m embarrassed for the guy.
BRIAN DICKERSON is the Free Press’ deputy editorial page editor. Contact him at 313-222-6584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.