When Biography Trumps Substance
January 31, 2014, 4:00am

When Biography Trumps Substance

SPOKANE, Wa. — Only the snarkiest would not be open to the likable life story of Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Eastern Washington politician who gave the “official” Republican response to the president’s State of the Union speech. She’s a farm girl from a big empty county just north of here, first in her family to attend college, mother of three, a rare woman in the retrograde men’s club of her party’s leadership.

Her district, poorer than the west side of the state, with much of the broken-family, broken-promise poverty of white rural America, is in real trouble. But the policy prescriptions of McMorris Rodgers have nothing to offer these people. Through her, you can see what happens when biography trumps substance in politics.

Consider Stevens County, her home, an area about half the size of Connecticut with fewer than 50,000 people. It’s gorgeous country, hard by the Columbia River, but a hard place to make a decent living. The county’s unemployment rate was 30 percent above the national average last year. One in six people live below the poverty level. One in five are on food stamps. And the leading employer is government, providing 3,023 of the 9,580 nonfarm payroll jobs last year.

Given that picture, it would seem surprising that McMorris Rodgers voted to drastically cut food aid last year, and joined her party in resisting emergency benefits to the unemployed. She has been a leading strategist in the unrelenting Republican attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act.

And yet, in her district, people are flocking to Obamacare — well beyond the national average. Though she has been screening town hall meetings to highlight only critics of the new law, her constituents are doing something entirely different in making their personal health decisions.

In Spokane County, the most populous in the Fifth Congressional District with nearly half a million people, the rate of participation in the new health care law is even well above the state average. At the end of December, signups were 102 percent of the state target. That’s saying something, because Washington, with a big range of insurance choices and a well-run exchange, has been one of the nation’s success stories for the Affordable Care Act.

Ignoring what her own neighbors are doing, McMorris Rodgers said on Tuesday that new health care law “is not working.” But if that’s the case, why have nearly one in 12 people in her home county signed up for expanded Medicaid coverage or new private health insurance? It could be, as the state noted, because the average time it takes a poor person to apply for health care here has now been cut from 45 days to 45 minutes.

On Tuesday night, McMorris Rodgers talked about how she worked at McDonald’s as a teen. But don’t expect any help from her on raising the minimum wage for the people holding the job she left behind. Her state, with the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.32 an hour and job growth above the national average, has shown the fallacy of her party’s argument that raising wages for low-end workers is a net job killer.

Lucky for the people in Eastern Washington they live in a state that has extended Medicaid to working poor and consistently raised its minimum wage. This would not happen if Republicans governed as they preach.

So, McMorris Rodgers clearly votes against the welfare of her constituents — no surprise there. That’s the “What’s the Matter With Kansas” premise, based on the Thomas Frank book documenting how poor whites choose cultural and social issues over economic ones at the ballot box.

What doesn’t make sense is how McMorris Rodgers is so full of animus toward the leading employer of her county, government. Yes, she protects the Air Force base here, as if it’s not really government, and payments to wealthy wheat farmers. But every other form of federal outlay is demonized.

It gets stranger still when looking at her career. On Tuesday night, she proudly mentioned working in an orchard and a fruit stand as a girl. But since then, she has spent most her adult life in — you guessed it — government. She’s been on a state or federal payroll since graduating from Pensacola Christian College, in the early 1990s.

As for the substance of the Republican alternative, there was none. Her speech was soft-focus theater and platitudes. The message was: We’re not all angry white guys. “Sometimes, Republicans think just putting a woman up front means somehow that women are going to feel good about the party,” Christine Whitman, the former New Jersey governor, and a Republican, told The Los Angeles Times. “It’s not about the messenger. It’s about the message.”

And the message was mush. For those struggling, the congresswoman said, “we have plans,” at least four times, and then mentioned no plans. It was the same market-tested ether about “empowering you” and “trusting people, not government.”

Reducing dependence and giving people a way to step up the class ladder are fine goals. And no doubt, broken families and single parents — as the Republican Party has long pointed out — keep many people in poverty. But one way to strengthen families is to help them with the kind of medical debt that forces people onto food stamps or prompts a woman to work two jobs, with no time for her kids.

The reason that large numbers of people here in the home district of Cathy McMorris Rodgers are signing up for the first chance in their lives to get affordable, or even free, health care is because they know something their member of Congress doesn’t. The girl who once picked apples in Kettle Falls can’t see what they see, because she’s committed to a party that won’t allow it.