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Mark Shields, nationally known columnist and commentator, is the moderator of CNN's The Capital Gang

Mark Shields: Dingell's August victory bad news for GOP in November

By Mark Shields
Creators Syndicate, Inc.

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate, Inc.) -- Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, 76 -- elected to Congress when 38-year-old Jack Kennedy was a freshman U.S. senator from Massachusetts and Dwight Eisenhower was still in his first White House term -- on August 6, 2002, trounced in the Michigan Democratic primary four-term House incumbent Lynn N. Rivers, 45. Rivers had been forced into a face-off with Dingell when state Republicans redrew congressional district boundaries after the 2000 census.

Before the voting, both polls and pundits had concluded the race was too close to call. In a record voter turnout, Dingell won 59 percent to 41 percent -- a landslide. For Republicans in the November general election, the John Dingell victory is bad news, just as a Lynn Rivers win would have lifted the GOP's hopes and prospects.

Why, you ask? In the wake of the corporate crime wave, the unsettling drop in the stock market and growing voter concern over unemployment, Social Security, health care and the economy's anemic growth, a win by Rivers -- whose campaign emphasized her greater commitment to abortion rights, stricter gun control laws and stronger environmental controlsówould have been an "upside-down" political victory.

Her triumph would have been attributed to those social-cultural issues, which while not trivial, are today of secondary or tertiary importance to most voters, three months before Election Day. The Rivers formula would have been exactly the wrong strategic game plan for Democrats heading into the general election.

John Dingell has never been accused of being a master of sensitive or touchy-feely politics. Instead, since 1955, Dingell, an unreconstructed New Deal Democrat, has been a master legislator, once called simply the "best congressman" by the respected Washington Monthly. Not only did he vote to pass Medicare in 1965, but he was still able persuade 68 House Republicans in 2000 to break with their party leadership and pass his patients bill of rights to regulate health maintenance organizations (HMO's).

Dingell, the go-to guy in Congress for both the auto workers and the auto industry, has terrified insider traders and defense contractors while still pushing -- as his congressman-father did before him -- unsuccessfully for national health insurance

Lynn Rivers was backed by probably $1 million from Emily's List, which backs Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights (Dingell voted for a ban on late-term, partial-birth abortions). Her campaign received roughly $250,000 from the environmentalist Sierra Club (Dingell, a champion of endangered species and wildlife refuges, uses his clout to weaken tougher federal pollution controls and mileage standards on Detroit cars).

Gun safety groups, led by Sara Brady -- the wife of Jim, the former presidential press secretary who was shot and permanently wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan -- strongly supported Rivers. Dingell, an enthusiastic hunter and ex-NRA board member, effectively killed, after Columbine high school, a proposed three-day waiting period on gun-show purchases.

Press coverage made Rivers the white hat and Dingell the heavy. He was, according to The Associated Press, backed by "powerful special interest groups," which is not an unfair characterization of the United Auto Workers union or the Big Three car companies.

But Rivers' institutional backers are by nobody's definition political lightweights. She had the support, said the AP, of the "more issue-oriented wing of the party." The New York Times framed the contest as a struggle between an "old-style political machine" (Dingell) and "a younger, more intellectual, liberal wing, particularly about issues like gun-control, abortion and the environment" (Rivers).

All press reports stressed Lynn Rivers' life story: motherhood at 18, overcoming depression, living hand-to-mouth and working without health insurance, putting herself through law school and winning election to Congress in 1994. It is an admirable story.

According to the savvy Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of "Inside Michigan Politics," there existed "a real cultural divide" between the two camps. But voters, anxious about the economy and angry at corporate bad guys, "asked: 'Where is the advantage if we replace Big John Dingell with Lynn Rivers?' And they couldn't find any."

Michigan Democratic voters decided in August 2002 that economics trumps gender; that demonstrated effectiveness trumps appealing personal biography. That's something Democrats would be wise to remember every campaign day from now until November.

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