US Rep. Peter Blute
Hey, that's politics.
Blute won the 3d Congressional District seat two years ago by defeating ex-Rep. Joe Early, the buffoonish incumbent. If Early represented everything that was old, stale, and gassy about Congress, Blute turned out to be refreshingly up-to-date. His voting record so impressed the Concord Coalition -- the nonpartisan group former Sen. Paul Tsongas co-founded to battle for deficit reduction -- that he earned its highest rating in the Massachusetts delegation. A few days ago Tsongas materialized in Worcester to endorse O'Sullivan.
That's politics, too.
During the Democratic primary, O'Sullivan was derided by his chief opponent, a doctrinaire liberal, as little more than "Blute Lite" -- a too-conservative Democrat who favored such schemes as the North American Free Trade Agreement and a Social Security means test. O'Sullivan defeated that opponent; now he derides Blute as "reactionary" and condemns the GOP for blocking "progress and security." Again: politics.
Third District voters are lucky. For the second election in a row, there is a spirited contest to represent them. And unlike 1992, when the Democrat was an entrenched and aging hack running on his "clout" (sound familiar?), the Democrats this time have nominated a candidate who matches Blute in energy, smarts, and knowledge of the district.
And who matches Bill Clinton in consistency. What does O'Sullivan stand for? Flip a coin:
Term limits -- says he's in favor, but voted against.
Balanced budget amendment -- says he's in favor, but voted against.
Overhauling welfare to get able-bodied people off the dole -- says he's in favor, but voted against.
Beginning to discern a pattern here?
Is O'Sullivan prochoice or pro-life? Depends when you ask him. Does he support bail reform that would keep dangerous suspects in jail? Depends when you ask him. Does he think first-degree murderers should be executed? Depends when you ask him.
Blute's campaign calls O'Sullivan "the biggest flip-flopper in recent Massachusetts political history." An exaggeration, maybe, but not by much. The would-be congressman points with pride to his, ahem, flexibility on key issues. A letter he wrote to the Worcester Telegram in April, as his campaign for Congress was getting underway, was headlined, tellingly: "State rep says changing position is sign of growth."
No one wants politicians so doctrinaire that their opinions can never be altered. But O'Sullivan has had more changes of heart than Mickey Rooney has had wives, and they all seem to have occurred since Mr. Blute went to Washington. "Sign of growth?" Or sign of ambition?
To be sure, Blute is ambitious, too. On some important votes in the 103d Congress, he abandoned his conservative principles in order to join the winning -- and politically less risky -- side. Liberals may delight in Blute's votes against NAFTA and for the crime bill, family leave, and the Brady Bill. But they were votes of expediency, not conviction, and they represent Blute's low-water mark as a freshman congressman.
Happily, he set high-water marks a lot more frequently.
Blute went to Congress promising to be a reformer. That's an easy promise to make when you're running against a dinosaur like Joe Early -- a check-kiting, ethically challenged, junketeering alumnus of the Dan Rostenkowski Academy of Congressional Sleaze.
But Blute kept his pledge. He enlisted in the battle to open up the discharge-petition process, angering House leaders -- among them the Rules Committee chairman, Joe Moakley of Boston. He voted to eliminate the four "select" committees that served as little more than publicity vehicles for their members. He was one of the quartet of House members who drafted an amendment giving the president a true line-item veto -- indispensable for cutting spending -- and came within 13 votes of getting it passed.
To date, Blute has spent less than 10 percent of his franking (free postage) allowance. He was part of the coalition that passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which -- for the first time -- subjects Congress to the same health and labor laws it imposes on the rest of us. He is pushing for a proper investigation of the House Post Office scandal, which, incredibly, was never referred to the Ethics Committee.
The 3d District gambled on Blute in 1992, and it paid off: He has been exactly the reformer he promised he would be. Will voters now replace him with a Democrat whose opinions change with the political seasons? In politics, anything is possible -- but don't bet the milk money on it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)