"I hope you bleed... [get] cancer and die," said an erudite caller in a message for U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) after he voted in favor of health care reform.
Throughout the hot-blooded debate over health care, one man has dominated the news almost as much as President Obama.
That would be Michigan's own Bart Stupak, the Democrat who represents the sprawling 24,875-square-mile 1st congressional district, encompassing both peninsulas and more than a third of the state's 83 counties. The former state trooper has held the job for almost 18 years.
Stupak spent 2009 as the darling of Right to Life, sponsoring an anti-abortion amendment to the U.S. House's health care bill written by the Catholic bishops. Some said he was grandstanding -- and it's true he didn't seem to mind the attention, even flirting with a run for governor.
What many liberals ignored was the fact that Stupak desperately wanted to vote for reform. He never signed up for federal health benefits, keeping a 1992 campaign promise that he would wait until universal health care was the law of the land. For months, he tried to broker a compromise with congressional leadership and the White House on abortion language, although talks kept breaking down.
"It's caused a lot of internal conflict. 'Am I doing the right thing,' you know?" he told The Hill days before the health care vote Sunday. "I believe everyone should have health care. In all my correspondence -- I've been saying for years -- it's a right, not a privilege."
We live in an era where an increasingly loud group of fanatics on both sides of the political spectrum view the world in black and white. They unwaveringly believe they have all the answers -- and naturally, are right.
To see the humility of an esteemed congressman as he grapples with critical issues of public policy is refreshing, to say the least.
The man who may have changed Stupak's mind was his mentor, hunting partner and dear friend, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). The longest-serving congressman in history, Dingell has waited 54 long years for health care reform. The fight actually started with his father, who began introducing legislation for single-payer in 1943.
"Often times, great changes require a lot of time," Dingell chuckled to me this week.
The pair hammered out their differences in a private meeting. Shortly afterward, Stupak won a presidential executive order reaffirming that no federal money would go to abortion. And he voted for the bill.
When Republicans tried to derail the legislation Sunday night, the man from Menominee took to the floor. In his even-keel Yooper accent, Stupak wearily told his colleagues, "This motion does not preserve life."
Well, that inspired a backbencher Texas congressman, Randy Neugebauer (armed with dreams of raising millions like Joe Wilson of "You lie!" fame), to scream that Bart was a "baby killer." The Republican later mumbled an apology, insisted he was talking about the process and promptly released a fundraising video with his glassy-eyed wife.
Lunatics left messages threatening Stupak like the one above, prompting the Michigan State Police to start regularly patrolling his home. Rabid right-wing CNN commentator Erick Erickson (who refers to the first lady as a "Marxist harpy") ordered his minions to send Stupak 100 pieces of silver. Erickson alleged a quid pro quo over transportation money the 1st district received, conveniently ignoring the fact that grants went to districts of congressmen who voted no.
Right to Life, classy and fact-free as always, snatched back Stupak's endorsement.
Now Republicans are scurrying out of the woodwork to challenge him, although some of the bigger names might be spooked by the rising popularity of both health care and the Democrats.
The GOP has never quite gotten over losing the 1st congressional two decades ago. It just doesn't feel right for a Dem to represent Michigan's wild last frontier, home to many a (now-defunct) militia group.
Of course, most of those calling for Stupak's head on a spike are out-of-towners, like big-city types at the National Review who literally can't find the 1st District on a map (the mag highlighted potential challengers living in the 4th District, a supreme insult to the U.P., eh).
Alas, lefties weren't satisfied, either. Loudmouth liberal activist Michael Moore took credit for changing his congressman's mind on health care.
"Bart, I'm glad you discovered you didn't have a uterus. And, like the scarecrow, I'm glad you found a bit of your brain," Moore declared. "A good night it was -- important little steps were taken to bring our country into the civilized world."
Evidently, the irony of Mikey's own words were lost on him in the midst of his boorish bombast. Anyone else tired of arrogance masquerading as principle?
Maybe that's why the calm idealism of the president presents such an appealing alternative.
"It's easy to succumb to the sense of cynicism of what's possible in this country," Obama said after signing legislation. "But today we are reaffirming that essential truth. We are not a nation that scales back its expectations. We are not a nation that does what's easy. We are a nation that faces its challenges and accepts its responsibilities. Here in this country, we shape our own destiny. That is what we do. That is who we are."
And why for many of us, Stupak's struggle over health care resonates. Life is not simple, nor is public policy. In the end, we do the best we can.
Bart tried to do right by his faith, his district and the 536,000 Michiganders who will now have health insurance.
You may not agree with him. But Bart Stupak certainly put his heart, soul and head into his decision -- which is far more than can be said about those rashly making threats against him.
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