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Analysis: What Mark Kirk Can Teach a Hypocrite Congress

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Everyone on Capitol Hill is delighted to see Sen. Mark Kirk return to work today, almost a year after his stroke. Kirk was vigorous and only in his early 50s when he was felled last year, and the illness hit everyone hard. For Kirk, it sparked some new thinking about the Medicaid program for the poor. The Republican told the Chicago Sun Times:

"Had I been limited to that I would have had no chance to recover like I did. So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face," he said. "I will look much more carefully at the Illinois Medicaid program to see how my fellow citizens are being cared for who have no income and if they suffer from a stroke."

That kind of empathy is welcome, but it’s also worth noting that with many Republicans it takes a personal experience to make them enthusiastically embrace government action.

Consider Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor is savaging House Speaker John Boehner and congressional Republicans for not quickly delivering on a $60.4 billion aid package to those affected by Superstorm Sandy. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with post disaster aid, which has been an American tradition at least since the Mississippi Flood of 1927. But for someone who has made his name as a fiscal hawk to demand that Congress pass a huge, unfunded aid package -- one that includes some dubious items like $150 million for Alaska fisheries -- has a certain degree of chutzpah.

To Christie’s credit, I don’t think his demand for storm aid is just political. It’s personal, too. You only have to have seen his interviews discussing how the boardwalks and amusement parks of his youth along the Jersey shore had been devastated to know that this was something deep and meaningful to him. The conservative who famously chewed out a school teacher now wants government aid this minute. As a native New Jerseyite, I say there’s nothing wrong with aid, but there is with hypocrisy.

In a different context, Wall Street had no trouble turning to government for aid when the financial crisis hit. Even before the Troubled Assets Relief Fund was established in the fall of 2008, Washington had aided the Bear Stearns takeover and the AIG bailout. And TARP itself, while initially shunned by some banks, became manna for the financial industry.

We’ve seen the liberal-for-a-day phenomenon before. (I wrote about it in the 90s for The New Republic.) Conservatives suddenly look at Washington anew. Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico, was to his eternal credit the chamber’s fiercest advocate, along with Sen. Paul Wellstone, for parity for mental health treatment in insurance programs. His daughter had mental illness. Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio had been a strong advocate against government regulation but he made a very big, and one could say, deeply admirable, exception for the 55 mph speed limit. His daughter was 22 when she died in an auto accident. 

There’s nothing wrong with letting personal experience shape one’s political views. We wouldn’t want pols who drew nothing—no rethinking, no change of heart—from their personal pain. It’s become an axiom among historians that polio helped make Franklin Roosevelt the empathetic leader he was. That’s good.

The issue is whether one can learn from one’s own suffering and draw wider conclusions instead of a more pinched definition. If Mark Kirk’s stroke made him think about the poor, then bravo. If emergency aid is surely needed to rebuild the Jersey Shore, shouldn’t Chris Christie show some urgency towards fixing Newark and Camden?

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