Shameless Pandering or Good Representation?

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Colorado’s Mike Coffman as a case study in how to appeal to voters.

By Seth Masket

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Mike Coffman speaks during a House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing on April 13, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

What do we call it when a politician changes his stance to keep his job? For a great example, look no further than United States Representative Mike Coffman, a Republican representing Colorado’s 6th district. Coffman has faced a more challenging congressional career than most of his peers. From a purely political standpoint, he’s had to change more than most to survive.

He was first elected in 2008 to Colorado’s 6th congressional district, replacing outgoing Representative Tom Tancredo, the conservative bomb-thrower who was then running for president. (Jon Stewart described Tancredo as “the guy Mexican parents tell their kids about to get them to eat their vegetables.”) Coffman seemed like a good match for the conservative district. While not quite as outspoken as Tancredo, he could still deliver a similar message about his predecessor’s signature issue, immigration. Coffman sponsored a bill to make English the official language, and he dismissively told Latino voters to “pull out a dictionary” if they didn’t understand their ballot.

Then came the re-districting of 2011. In 2010, about two-thirds of partisan registrants in Coffman’s district were Republican. By 2012, only half were. The district went, over night, from a safe Republican one to a toss-up. Importantly, the Latino percentage of the district more than doubled, and is now about 20 percent. In 2012, Barack Obama won Coffman’s district, and Coffman himself got a scare, beating a relatively unknown state representative by just two points.

Coffman has responded to this sudden change in his electoral environment with a number of important shifts. In 2013, he started taking Spanish lessons, and now claims to enjoy watching telenovelas. He’s gone out of his way to appeal to immigrant communities from Latin America, Asia, and Africa throughout his diverse district. He’s moderated his stances on several immigration-related issues, and now favors allowing undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children a path to citizenship.

A politician can never keep everyone in his district happy. He has to make choices about whom to please and whom to disappoint every day.

Political science literature on legislators suggests that, in the words of Keith Poole, they tend to “die in their ideological boots.” That is, when a legislator changes districts or offices, or when her constituency otherwise shifts, she tends to vote pretty much the same way over time. On the other hand, we know politicians aren’t suicidal. The reason 90 percent of House of Representatives members get re-elected every two years, even in a climate in which most voters hate Congress and politicians, is that they work very hard to appeal to their constituents. As David Mayhew put it, “Congressman Smith is unbeatable as long as he continues to do the things he is doing.”

Coffman seems to provide an extreme case of both a district shifting and a politician responding to it. The American Conservative Union rates members of Congress according to their voting records on issues they perceive to be emblematic of conservatism. Coffman received a 100 percent conservative rating his first year in Congress. His rating dropped each year thereafter, getting a 76 percent in 2014, although he rebounded slightly last year.

This year, Coffman is facing a strong challenger, state senator Morgan Carroll, who was recently president of the Colorado Senate. Both parties have designated this race a battleground for control of the U.S. House, and Coffman has been working to distance himself from Donald Trump in order to retain his seat.

So what exactly are we seeing here? Two observers looking at the same example might emerge with very different verdicts. One might call Coffman a shameless panderer, willing to sell out any principle in order to stay in office. Another might see him as a good representative, trying to reflect the beliefs and diversity of his district as they change.

The concept of “pandering,” really, has gotten a very bad rap. Pretty much any time a politician takes a stance we don’t like, or shies away from one we do like, that politician will be dismissed as a panderer, someone who’s more interested in pleasing voters or some prominent interest group than in doing what’s right.

But this whole concept is based on the notion that there’s something objectively “right” for politicians to be doing. The vast majority of the time, that’s just not the case, and what’s right is in the eye of the beholder. A politician can never keep everyone in his district happy. He has to make choices about whom to please and whom to disappoint every day. It’s a calculation based on who can help him maintain his job. The sum total of all those decisions is representation, and, in general, that’s something we want.

On the other hand, it can be distressing to observe a politician willing to do or say anything to stay in office, particularly when it involves racial appeals. If a politician is willing to play one race against another as a campaign tactic, is it really very heartening to learn that he’s not actually racist on the inside?

Coffman is providing us a great example of the amount of change a politician is capable of when his job is on the line. But he’s facing a tough election this year. If his constituents end up deciding that he just doesn’t represent them anymore, it won’t be for lack of effort on this part.

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