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Incumbents can’t avoid no-win situations

Consider the politician of conscience looking for traction in the dizzying vortex of politics.

He or she must weigh the idea of trusted representative against decision-making by poll. The on-site representative knows the issues intimately and at great depth, but if a majority of his constituents want him to do something else — to go against his better judgment — what should he do?

He knows an opponent will fall on him with an avalanche of criticism if chooses his own feeling over his district’s.

It’s not easy. He could do the “politic” thing and still lose. What if the tide changes when people begin to see what he saw all along?

A congressman, for example, may have found the recent health care bill good enough to vote for — even as he recognizes opposition to the bill among the voters.

He may see it as a reasonable start on the road to a less expensive, more inclusive system. He may wish to support the president whose coattails he rode into office on and whose views he generally supports.

He may wish to show he’s in touch with people, un-beholden to Washington and party leaders. Others will charge him and his colleagues with being too responsive to polling. Why can’t he be his own man?

He may think he can’t win whatever course he takes, but ultimately he has to choose.

Many members of Congress might be finding themselves in such a bind.

Kratovil’s dilemma

There’s no better example than Maryland’s Frank Kratovil. The amiable 1st District freshman has been one of the most carefully watched members of Congress over the last two years because this dilemma defines his political life.

As a Democrat representing Maryland’s proudly conservative Eastern Shore, Kratovil has tried to avoid anything that might define him as a slave to the Democratic Party line.

He is clearly the most vulnerable of this state’s congressional delegation and one of the most vulnerable in the nation in this time of the tea party.

He won by a small margin two years ago in an election season dominated by the hope and change message of President Barack Obama. Turnout among the Democratic faithful helped put him in office.

He had something of a profile as a prosecutor on the Shore, but he was brand new to high-level electoral politics. He defeated Republican state Sen. Andy Harris, but Harris is back with a better than good chance to unseat him.

Harris won’t have to carry any of the heavy baggage piled on the back of Republicans in 2008. Democratic turnout may not be as favorable as it was two years ago. Harris’ style turned off many voters last time, but it may play better in an anti-incumbent year.

Going against his party

Thus did Frank Kratovil vote nay on the controversial health care reform bill.

With great pressure to go along with his party, he was, undoubtedly, given a pass by party leaders. He was allowed to vote no in service to shoring up his position in the coming election.

A few months ago, life seemed even more tenuous for incumbents like Kratovil. Their prospects seemed less than poor. They were going down. A wave of recession-fueled, anti-government sentiment was going to sweep them away. Unemployment was (is) high. Taxes were regarded as high. Government was over-stepping its bounds. That’s been the mantra.

Kratovil had said earlier that he might vote for a health care bill in the future, but this one was not adjusted sufficiently to win his support.

Since then, some voters have read the bill or had it explained to them more carefully. Some have even concluded it might bring enough improvement to alter their thinking.

The dilemma for this Democrat and perhaps for others was more unsettling because the margins of victory are so tight.

It could be the ultimate no-win situation.

Some Democrats will walk away from him after the health care vote, but conservatives probably wouldn’t have voted for him either way.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.