Karen Shepherd and Marjorie Margolies have a message for their former colleagues on Capitol Hill: There is life after Congress, so vote your conscience, explain your reasons and let elections turn out as they may. If you lose, you might even get some presidential help finding a new job.
It is, no doubt, a scary time for incumbents. Republicans are under pressure to meet conservative purity tests
in the face of energized primary opponents who have access to money. Democrats, meanwhile, are still trying to recover from Republican Scott Brown's Senate win last month in Massachusetts. Does that mean they should abandon their ambitious drives to reform the health system, tighten financial regulation and change the country's energy habits?
Even as they try to figure it all out, President Obama added yet more trepidation to the lives of Democrats. Last week, guaranteeing an uprising among social conservatives, he said he wants them to repeal the military's don't ask, don't tell
policy toward gay troops. And now comes the president's $3.8 trillion budget
-- a juicy target if ever there was one.
Principles or survival? That was the question Kansas Republican Edmund G. Ross faced in 1868 when he cast the deciding vote to acquit President Andrew Johnson in his Senate impeachment trial.
The career consequences for Ross were grim, but his historic choice earned him a chapter in John F. Kennedy's Profiles In Courage
The issue at hand was more practical in 1993, when Shepherd and Margolies were vulnerable freshmen called on to support then-President Bill Clinton's budget. While the bill cut taxes for low-income people and small businesses, it raised the gasoline tax and, for the better off, Social Security taxes. Democrats passed it all by themselves -- 218-216 in the House, 51-50 in the Senate (with Vice President Al Gore voting).
That budget was key to putting the nation on a sound fiscal footing. But in the short term, that is the 1994 campaign, Republicans attacked Democrats as tax-hikers; they took credit for blocking Clinton's "government takeover" of health care, and anti-incumbent fever swept the land. Sound familiar?
Margolies -- then married and known as Margolies-Mezvinsky -- was the deciding Democratic vote on the floor, which made her highly visible and vulnerable in her Republican-leaning district outside Philadelphia. She says she regrets not being a better politician and she regrets losing her seat, but she doesn't regret her vote. "I don't want to sound holier than thou. These decisions are very difficult," she told me. "But you really have to do what is right and not what you have justified is right" because you can't bear to lose.
For Utah's Shepherd, the budget vote was a loser whatever she did. "My constituency was evenly split on the subject. So I was damned either way," she told me. She went with her gut, supported the bill and never looked back: "The result of that vote was that the United States ended up with a surplus instead of a deficit. And it was absolutely the right thing to do."
The principle-vs.-survival calculus is different for each member.
Margolies recalled a colleague telling her that he voted 95 percent on principle and 5 percent "to stay." But not all 5 percents are created equal. No one should vote on comprehensive health reform, unattainable for a century so far, "to stay." Too much is at stake, from the 31 million uninsured people who would get coverage, to the "exchanges" or marketplaces that would force private insurers to compete and give consumers more affordable choices.
Most Democrats in the House, and all Democrats in the Senate, already have voted for initial versions of health reform bills. Both Margolies and Shepherd say the party will face a debacle in November if it doesn't somehow get the package to final passage and on Obama's desk.
Shepherd has been on the phone urging her liberal former colleagues to pass the Senate bill to start the country on the road to reform, even though it has elements they -- and she -- dislike. "I think that it has to pass or else in my lifetime there will never be comprehensive health care in America," Shepherd told me. "I just can't imagine having the opportunity to start the process (toward that), and dropping it."
The two former congresswomen don't minimize what it means to lose. "I counted it as one of the most dramatic experiences I've ever had," Shepherd said of her 1994 loss to Enid Greene Waldholz
. "It's horrible to have your state say 'we don't like you.' It's embarrassing, it feels degrading, it feels like failure, everything about it is hard."
But life went on. After Shepherd lost, Clinton named her to represent the United States at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London; she held the post for six years. In 1995, using leftover campaign money, she founded the Karen Shepherd Fund
to pay interns on Democratic campaigns in Utah; so far 173 interns have received stipends. Shepherd sits on the board of that group and two others, and calls the work "challenging."
Margolies also had a little help from the Clinton White House (and this was long before she was on track to become Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law
). She was named to head the U.S. delegation to the 1995 U.N. women's conference in Beijing. That led her to form Women's Campaign International
, a non-profit organization that helps women learn political skills and become decision-makers in their countries. Margolies chairs the group and teaches classes on politics, media and women in emerging democracies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Obama administration cushioned the pain of defeat for former Rep. Nancy Boyda. She won a GOP House seat in Kansas in 2006 but lost it in 2008. Last July, Boyda was sworn in
as deputy assistant secretary of defense for manpower and personnel issues. How did she lose in such a Democratic year? The Almanac of American Politics
gives at least a partial answer: She came under attack for backing Democratic budgets that sought to phase out President Bush's tax cuts for wealthy people.
The GOP argument hasn't changed, but it has expanded. Soon after the Obama budget came out Monday, the National Republican Congressional Committee shot a press release into more than 60
targeted House districts. The headline: "Will Target Dems Vote for Another Budget that Spends Too Much, Borrows Too Much, and Taxes Too Much?"
It's not etched in stone -- yet -- that Democrats are headed for catastrophe at the polls or a run for the hills
on issues they care about. They are 90 percent of the way to passage on health reform, and when people find out what's in the bill, polls show they like a lot of it. Congress is also nearly halfway to passing financial reform and energy bills. And speaking of polls, there was one bright spot Monday to counter-act anxieties over the budget: Gallup released 2009 data showing that most states are still more Democratic than Republican
That said, there's certainly no assurance voters will come to love the Obama agenda or decide the president deserves more time to pursue it. I'd love to see Obama guarantee soft landings for all those who put their necks on the line to pass it. Even signals would be helpful. Then again, there could be quite a few Democrats losing this fall, because the economy is bad, or people are tired of one-party rule, or -- the irony -- Democrats can't seem to get anything done.