In Politics, Courage Is a Virtue That Can Easily Be Misplaced

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

In 1959, while preparing to run for president, John F. Kennedy told historian Arthur Schlesinger he “felt that it would be a good idea to admit frankly that he had been wrong in not taking a more forthright position” on the Communist witch hunting by Senator Joe McCarthy. Schlesinger told him he was “paying the price of having written a book called Profiles in Courage.” Kennedy replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have any chapter in it about myself.”

How might Kennedy respond to the courage—or lack of it—of these Nevada politicians?

Senator Dean Heller. In one day, Heller had a doubleheader. First, the National Journal reported “GOP Is Relying on Obama to Veto Reconciliation Bill.” The bill would repeal the president’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act but allow time for transition. The Journal noted, “Several GOP senators represent states that have opted to expand Medicaid under the ACA, and stripping their constituents of health-care coverage could be dangerous politically—but the president’s veto threat assures that won’t happen. ‘Well, it’s going to be vetoed,’ said Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, when asked about the Medicaid provision. Nevada has expanded Medicaid.”

Later that day, 24 hours or so after the massacre in San Bernardino, the Senate voted anew on the Manchin-Toomey bill, defeated in 2013, that would have expanded background checks. The vote was 50-48 against, with three Republicans joining Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, to back the measure: Arizona’s John McCain, Maine’s Susan Collins and Mark Kirk of Illinois. Heller, that noted champion of bipartisanship, voted against the bill.

It takes real courage to vote against something that you know will be vetoed anyway, and then to keep a system that still allows domestic terrorists with criminal histories—i.e., Robert L. Dear of Colorado Springs—easy access to weaponry.

John Oceguera. The former Assembly speaker ran for the House in 2012 and lost to Joe Heck, who doesn’t want you to know he’s still in Congress as he seeks Harry Reid’s Senate seat. After working as a lobbyist, Oceguera is in a crowded Democratic primary with declared candidates Lucy Flores, Ruben Kihuen and Susie Lee in the race for House District 4, which consists of several rural counties and most of Clark County north of Las Vegas.

Responding to, as he put it, “more than 350 mass shootings just this year,” Oceguera wrote a letter resigning his membership in the National Rifle Association. “I am [a] law-abiding gun owner, and have been a life member,” he said. “I grew up in a family of hunters.” [But] I cannot continue to be a member while the NRA refuses to back closing these loopholes. Therefore, I resign my membership in the NRA effective immediately. Please remove my name from your membership list.”

On the one hand, Oceguera has extensive ties to rural Nevada—he grew up in Fallon, where Democrats are exceedingly rare—and it would be reasonable to calculate that his best chance is with more conservative white male Democrats. This actually could hurt him politically.

On the other hand, what took him so long? The NRA hasn’t exactly been shy, and San Bernardino wasn’t a first, second or even 22nd mass shooting. And the overwhelming majority of Democrats—and the majority of Americans—have had it with the NRA.

Adam Paul Laxalt. The attorney general announced he had ended an inquiry into Planned Parenthood’s Nevada chapter. His office had been trying to find out whether the offices sold body parts. Attorneys for Planned Parenthood reported that the Nevada branches don’t participate in donation programs for body tissue.

This may have been an act of political courage. Republicans have shown no signs of believing the facts about Planned Parenthood. Imagine future campaigns in which opponents will attack him for that. If he gets to Congress, they may never put him on a Benghazi panel. Kennedy said something else: “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

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