Murkowski will return to Senate with independence, will she use it?

Posted: Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The election hasn't been certified yet, but it's a good bet Sen. Lisa Murkowski will rejoin the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate next year. Even though the GOP leadership backed Joe Miller, they'll be happy to have her on their side. But as Murkowski told Candy Crowley on CNN in mid September, she didn't run "to make the Republican Party happy." It was about Alaskans.

The interview with Crowley was one of many in which Murkowski defended her decision to remain in the race as a write-in candidate. The judgments against had been harsh. Crowley echoed the complaint of many she was acting like a sore loser. New York Times columnist David Brooks joked she "must have too many admiring conversations with the mirrors in her house". Fox news commentator Newt Gingrich accused her of "fundamentally cheating" by not running as an independent before the primary

Without a doubt, most of the GOP faithful were concerned Murkowski would split the conservative vote and throw the election to Democrat Scott McAdams. But it wasn't just the political right who was overly focused on the party. New York Times columnist Gail Collins complained write-in campaigns distract voters who "should concentrate on the party" first because control of the Senate is "far more important than anything else an individual member does."

That's not what our democracy is about. Yet consider the stated goal of GOP congressional leaders to make sure President Barack Obama is a one-term president. It seems that their priority is producing short term failure in America for the sake of their party's future. Whatever happened to the "County First" theme of John McCain's candidacy two years ago?

It's not just the GOP acting like the failed Soviet Union by putting the party before the people. Four years ago when the Democrats took control of both houses they refrained from making the unpopular war in Iraq a priority because they were positioning themselves for the 2008 presidential election.

In Alaska's U.S. Senate race, the GOP backed Miller because he won the party-sanctioned primary. The substance of his differences with Murkowski didn't matter to them before the primary or during the general election. They didn't care about or understand the independent character of Alaskan voters who would ultimately support her. But they certainly didn't like that she defied the party bosses.

In the end though, it wasn't just Alaska's large independent voting bloc that made Murkowski a winner in this election. There were a fair number of normally faithful Democrats and Republicans who voted for her as well. And it doesn't matter if they cast their votes against Miller; the fact is they too ignored their party leaders.

Murkowski will return to the Senate in a unique position to work with whatever legislators she chooses. Independence does come with price. Straddling this middle ground won't be easy. But it's not supposed to be. What is easy is voting the party line without thinking, which is the standard operating procedure far too often in Congress.

Murkowski can be a true independent even if she does routinely caucus with the GOP. She'll likely be a significant swing vote on some important issues. Whenever she does cross party lines, she'll prove Miller was right when he claimed she wasn't conservative enough. And when she sticks with the GOP it'll be evidence for many Democrats she isn't moderate enough. In both cases she'll have more explaining to do because she will be representing a broader based constituency than she had been.

But if she renews her pursuit of personal power within the party hierarchy, she could be placing her ambition before the people of Alaska. And if she swings farther to the political right it will be clear that she was engaged in a premeditated betrayal of the moderate voters who supported her.

Right now, Murkowski is entitled to glow with the success of her historical comeback. To leave it there though would terminate a story of political independence still in the making. And it's our story too, because in the end, politics may be about the party, but democracy is about the people.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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