There's much to admire about John Danforth, the former U.S. senator from Missouri.
A scion of wealth, he pursued degrees in law and divinity. As a senator, he delivered communion to shut-ins. He confronted hunger in Cambodia and civil war in Sudan. In 2005, he criticized the Republican Party for caring more about gay marriage than the deficit.
Now, though, he's propping up one of the bigger jerks in Congress.
Danforth recently endorsed U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt for the Senate position held by Kit Bond, who will retire in 2010. The endorsement marked a change of heart. Weeks earlier, Danforth had spent time introducing a protégé, Washington University law professor Thomas Schweich, to party activists, lawmakers and donors. Danforth called Schweich a "fresh face" who could keep Bond's seat in Republican hands.
Schweich withdrew his name from consideration on June 11. He said he was stepping aside in order to avoid a "divisive" primary battle.
Danforth immediately threw his support behind Blunt. At the Spirit of Enterprise dinner in St. Louis, a big Republican fundraiser on June 11, Danforth called Blunt a terrific candidate. "Let's keep a seat," he said. "Let's elect Roy Blunt."
Party unity should help Blunt, all right. Less easy to understand is Danforth's willingness to fall in that line.
Three years ago, Danforth was telling people to "get mad" about the party's takeover by the Christian right. Danforth had just published a book, Faith and Politics, in which he sharply criticized fundamentalists' demands of fealty and their lust for wedge issues.
Ordained as an Episcopal priest, Danforth is the kind of guy who attends prayer breakfasts but is mindful of religion's power to divide. He was appalled when Congress intervened in the case of Terri Schiavo, calling it a "breathtaking departure from the principles of the Republican Party." A constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage? Danforth called it gay bashing. He was also dismayed by attempts to criminalize embryonic stem-cell research. (Danforth dedicated Faith and Politics to the memory of his brother Don, who suffered from ALS.)
But with his endorsement of Blunt, Danforth is now promoting the same politics that he finds so objectionable.
Let's start with Blunt's voting record.
On March 20, 2005, Blunt voted with Republicans who wanted the federal courts to intervene to keep Schiavo alive. (Blunt stood up front, next to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, for press conferences that Sunday.) Two months later, he voted to uphold federal restrictions on spending for embryonic stem-cell research.
In 2006, before the midterm elections, U.S. House Republicans put together a "values agenda" to rally the base. The agenda included a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Danforth and Blunt differ in other ways.
Danforth, who once considered becoming a hospital chaplain, has been married to the same woman for more than 50 years.
Blunt, meanwhile, left his wife in order to hook up with the chief Washington lobbyist for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. Before he and the lobbyist, Abigail Perlman, married, Blunt tried to slip a provision benefiting her employer into the 475-page bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.
Blunt's ties to lobbyists go beyond the bedroom. In 2003, Blunt's longtime aide, Gregg Hartley, became the CEO at the lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates, for whom Jack Abramoff briefly consulted. Blunt and DeLay appeared at the party that Cassidy staged to celebrate Hartley's hiring.
To Hartley, working as an aide on Capitol Hill and lobbying on behalf of Verizon, Freddie Mac and other corporations virtually comprise the same job. "Blunt and I both concluded that I could still be a valuable part of his team," he told Washington Post writer Robert Kaiser when asked about the decision to leave the congressman's office and make millions on K Street.
In his book, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, Kaiser describes how Cassidy & Associates built up its expertise in earmarking. As the practice took form in the 1980s, Danforth was one of its most vocal critics.
In short, Blunt seems to exemplify the sleaze and narrow-mindedness that give the hives to blue bloods such as Danforth. Yet, there was Danforth at the St. Louis dinner, getting a big ovation for making Blunt his buddy.
The about-face led Sarah Steelman, a conservative Republican who's also a contestant for Bond's Senate seat, to take a Twitter shot at Danforth last week. Her tweet said it was "funny" that Danforth would join hands with Blunt after saying the party needed a fresh face.
So what has led Danforth to Ziploc the principles that he has articulated in recent years? Barack Obama.
"My view is that it is very important for Republicans to hold the Missouri Senate seat," Danforth tells me. "It has to do with the general direction in which Obama is leading the country and that we have to have an effective opposition."
Danforth says Obama has aggregated power in Washington and in the White House that should make any good Republican nervous.
"I think when Obama talked about change, he really meant it. We didn't understand — that is, the country didn't understand — what he meant until he started doing things. But it really is a sea change. It's a very dramatic change in the relationship between the federal government and the rest of the country."
The Congressional Budget Office said in March that the president's budget would force the government to borrow $9.3 trillion over the next decade. "It's not just doubling the national debt in five years, although that's very big," Danforth says, "but whether the president should be able to fire the CEOs and boards of companies, and whether the government should own 60 percent of General Motors and whether there should be a pay czar and whether Vice President Biden should be designated, in the words of the administration, 'the sheriff' to go around the country and police how state and local governments are spending money."
Danforth wouldn't be a Republican if he didn't worry about these things. Of course, the deficit argument is kind of lame, considering the Republicans' lack of discipline when they were in charge. A recent New York Times analysis determined that Obama's initiatives will account for only 10 percent of the deficits running from now to 2012. President George W. Bush's policies, wars and economic downturns account for the rest.
And it's true that the government owns 60 percent of GM. But Danforth is unsteady in his understanding of how we got there. I tried to suggest to him that government bailouts of the auto industry began when Bush was in office.
"Not for the car companies," Danforth said.
I believe they did, I said.
"I don't think so."
In fact, Bush announced in December that the government would tap into the Troubled Asset Relief Program in order to provide $17.4 billion to GM and Chrysler. And Rick Wagoner, the GM CEO who was so audaciously kicked to the curb by the Obama team? The company's stock traded for nearly $70 when he took charge. It was worth $3.62 on the day he was told to leave.
Listening to Danforth bemoan activist government as it relates to the auto industry is ironic. In 1979, as a senator, he supported federal assistance for Chrysler. Danforth said at the time that he was putting aside his misgivings for the sake of "flesh-and-bone human beings" who depended on Chrysler for jobs.
Sounds like another politician who also faced a mess in Detroit.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.