Politics is not for purists.
Sure, an effective leader must know when to draw a hard line to keep from being a total sellout. But a politician who wants to accomplish anything has to cultivate the skills of negotiation and compromise.
It’s a delicate dance, and either way there are consequences.
Often politicians who dare to seize the moral high road, such as Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse and Alaska Sen. Ernest Gruening, the only two U.S. senators to vote against the Vietnam War in 1964, get thrashed at the polls. Morse and Gruening both were soundly defeated in the next election.
Alas, the reward for their courage finally came in the history books.
Others who bow to political pressure and make uncomfortable compromises or outright mistakes must live with other consequences. Their careers may survive in the short term, but the judgment of history can be brutal.
For them, the only refuge is the apology.
In this campaign season, so many apologies have been issued it’s as if Yom Kippur has lasted all year long.
In recent days, we have heard Michael Bloomberg apologizing for his despised stop-and-frisk policies when he was mayor of New York. Former Vice President Joe Biden issued a belated apology to Anita Hill for grossly mismanaging the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991. Sen. Elizabeth Warren apologized to Native Americans for frivolously claiming American Indian heritage. Mayor Pete Buttigieg apologized for his insensitive use of the line “All lives matter.”
And there are others.
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Here in Colorado, it’s Andrew Romanoff who’s apologizing … as he has been for most of the last 13 years.
The former Speaker of the House could have thumbed his nose at Bill Owens in 2006 when the governor called the Legislature into special session during a period of heated debate over immigration reform across the country.
In retrospect, Romanoff has said, that’s exactly what he should have done.
Instead, he led the effort to forge a compromise that produced one of the toughest anti-immigration programs in the country at the time.
It was clearly a bad situation. Emotions were raw on both sides.
Back then, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo was the darling of right-wing talk radio, calling for 700 miles of border fencing, bombing Mecca and measures to declare all undocumented immigrants felons. He had a rabidly anti-immigrant following.
Meanwhile, pro-immigrant demonstrations raged from coast to coast. That spring an estimated 50,000 people marched on the state Capitol in Denver. Chants of “Si, se puede” (Yes, we can) reverberated across the city.
So, with Democratic majorities in both the state Senate and House, it’s easy to see why Owens jumped at the chance to exploit a hot-button issue at the Democrats’ expense.
It was brilliant political theater choreographed to produce maximum casualties.
The Democrats caved.
Now, Romanoff is right to remind voters that the measures he helped enact were not as bad as what Owens sought in a constitutional amendment or what hard-liners like Tancredo were advocating.
Still, the outcome was, among other things, to require that law enforcement officials report suspected undocumented residents who had been arrested to federal immigration enforcement agencies, and to codify in state law a federal prohibition on providing some human services benefits to people living in the U.S. illegally.
The compromise created a legacy of mistrust in the Latino community that continues to this day and, since Latinos represent more than 20% of Coloradans, that’s a serious problem.
Romanoff has struggled with this legacy in previous unsuccessful campaigns and recently told The Colorado Sun that it was a mistake and, if voters are “holding out for a candidate who’s never made a mistake, they probably won’t cast many votes.”
Fair enough, but the whole episode highlights an important aspect of politics in 2020 and beyond.
The Pew Research Center estimates that while 83% of Republicans are non-Hispanic whites, among Democrats 39% are black, Hispanic, Asian-American or another non-whites.
So, while Republicans are flaunting their xenophobia and white privilege to their Trump-era political advantage, Democrats must figure out how to authentically represent all Americans.
As the demographic changes continue to advance across the country, leaders who hope to have a future in 21st-century politics will need the courage to take a stand for more than mere political expedience.
Because if there’s anything we’ve learned this year, it’s that voters eventually may forgive, but they never forget.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
CLARIFICATION: This column was updated Dec. 3, 2019, at 1:34 p.m. to clarify the impact of Senate Bill 90 and House Bill 1023, both of which passed during the 2006 legislative session.