What fresh nerve is this? A Republican prepared to vote more for the preferences of his constituents than the party poobahs in D.C.? A red-state man ready to throw party solidarity under the bus for the sake of the people who elected him?
This is not a dispatch from the bizzarro world. This is the refreshingly straightforward (if politically strategic) view through the eyes of Anh (Joseph) Cao, a lawyer and first-term Vietnamese-American Republican congressman from Louisiana.
His rise to public attention came on Saturday, as part of the roll call vote on final passage of the Affordable Health Care for America Act, the House health-care bill now moving with all deliberate sluggishness through the bowels of the Senate. The Democrats needed 218 votes for passage; it passed with 220, to the resounding cheers of jubilant Democrats in the House floor that night.
What was curious was that “1” Republican vote in the “YEA” column on the tote board shown on C-SPAN. The Republicans, bound and determined before the vote to present a solid front against the legislation, had a defector in their midst. His name was Joseph Cao.
Cao, who replaced the disgraced Democratic William Jefferson and represents the strongly Democratic district around New Orleans, was interviewed after the vote about his, uh, maverick vote in favor of a bill painted as anathema by the GOP.
Interviewed by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, Cao was disarmingly direct.
“I believe it was the right decision for my district, based on the needs of the district. As you know, after Hurricane Katrina much of the health care system in New Orleans was pretty much devastated. A lot of people are poor, a lot of people are uninsured and I believe the health-care reform bill would greatly help these people.”
“Yes, I knew it would make some, uh … some talking points within the party … [but] to tell you the truth the party leadership was very professional about it, because they realized that I do have a very poor district and they realize that this health care reform bill or any kind of reform would help the people of my district.”
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It’s not the first time he’s bolted from the pack. In June, Cao joined a handful of other Republicans in voting for the Obama administration's $106 billion supplemental appropriation for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cao put this vote in realpolitik terms: the bill included money to help restore the battered Gulf Coast, and to provide low-income housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina (and its cousin in destruction, Hurricane Rita).
Cao’s defection on the hot-button health-care issue isn’t likely to be repeated in the Senate, where a tougher fight for reform is expected.
But Cao’s lone vote, and his plain-spoken defense of that vote, reflected a long-overdue grasp of reality. Cao’s stand wasn’t exactly Capraesque; there was no Jimmy Stewart moment from the congressman before the vote.
In fact, Cao explained himself in more politically expedient terms on his Web page on the House Web site:
“Today, I obtained a commitment from President Obama that he and I will work together to address the critical health care issues of Louisiana including the FMAP crisis and community disaster loan forgiveness, as well as issues related to Charity and Methodist Hospitals. And, I call on my constituents to support me as I work with him on these issues.”
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Michael J.W. Stickings, blogging in The Huffington Post, took issue on Monday: “It's hard to fault Cao for worrying about his re-election prospects, but let's not mistake self-interest for nobility.
“Joseph Cao, in other words, is hardly a profile in courage.”
Maybe, maybe not. What Joseph Cao is is a profile in pragmatism, and these partisan days, that's more than enough. Given the automatic opposition of others on his side of the aisle, Cao's touch of practicality for Americans who need it is a welcome thing.
And Cao’s moment also shines because of what it wasn’t. There was no grandstanding on the House floor, no pounding the lectern to drive a point home. Just a vote of conscience — and yes, enlightened self-interest — on behalf of the people who sent him there in the first place.
Mr. Cao’s come to Washington, and never mind salvation: If the GOP brand has any hope of at least salvage, if the Republican Party wants to contend in the future, its hopes rest on more people just like him.
Image credits: Cao: Public domain. New Orleans, August 2005: USCG Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi.