Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) was solely responsible for dashing the Republican leadership’s hopes of having all 177 of its members vote against historic health care legislation on Saturday. Cao broke with his party and voted with Democrats after speaking personally to President Obama and pressing for more federal funds for his district, which is still struggling after Hurricane Katrina. In a statement, Cao explained that the needs of his constituents trumped partisan politicking:
I read the versions of the House [health reform] bill. I listened to the countless stories of Orleans and Jefferson Parish citizens whose health care costs are exploding — if they are able to obtain health care at all. Louisianans needs real options for primary care, for mental health care, and for expanded health care for seniors and children. [...]
I have always said that I would put aside partisan wrangling to do the business of the people. My vote tonight was based on my priority of doing what is best for my constituents.
The reaction to Cao from the right wing has been swift and fierce, with some comparing the only non-Hispanic minority in the GOP caucus to Mao Tse Tung and calling him racial epithets. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) — who has defended Cao’s vote — had to stand beside him during Saturday’s roll call, “fending off his GOP colleagues who might have twisted Cao’s arms.” Last week, RNC Chairman Michael Steele made clear that moderates who don’t walk the Party line have no place in the GOP:
So candidates who live in moderate to slightly liberal districts have got to walk a little bit carefully here, because you do not want to put yourself in a position where you’re crossing that line on conservative principles, fiscal principles, because we’ll come after you.
Cao “chuckled” in response to Steele’s comments, pointing out that his vision would essentially lead the party toward a path of political suicide. “He has the right to come after those members who do not conform to party lines,” said Cao, “but I would hope that he would work with us in order to adjust to the needs of the district and to hold a seat that the Republican party would need.”
These far right statements represent a dramatic shift from where the GOP said it was heading just a year ago. After Cao won in his majority-Democratic district, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) sent out a memo reading “The Future is Cao“:
As House Republicans look ahead to the next two years, the Cao victory is a symbol of what can be achieved when we think big, present a positive alternative, and work aggressively to earn the trust of the American people.
The GOP seems to no longer be interested in presenting “positive” alternatives or thinking “big.” Its alternative health care legislation didn’t even bar insurers from denying people based upon pre-existing conditions — a top priority of the American public. Additionally, instead of candidates like Cao, far-right candidates who are the darlings of the Tea Party movement (e.g. Doug Hoffman in the NY-23 special election) are winning out over moderates.
So if the “future is Cao,” when will Republicans follow his lead and put their constituents’ interests over those of Republican leaders and right-wing pundits?
Today on MSNBC, Cao said that GOP leaders “respect my decision.” “They are very supportive of who I am and I think they are proud of the Republican Party,” he added.