Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
— James Russell Lowell, “The Present Crisis” (1844)
Memorialized as an iconic hymn and used by the NAACP in 1910 as inspiration for its newspaper, “The Crisis,” Lowell’s powerful words should not be used lightly in addressing the issues of the day. Still, his verse focuses our attention on decisions made by those in power at critical junctures.
Without question, these words apply directly and profoundly to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, in July 2017. Never in his three decades of public service has the senator faced a more important choice than his vote on the bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.
Of course, this vote is important in determining the ultimate fate of the ACA. But Moran’s decision might be even more important in determining the ultimate assessment of his overall Senate career. Will he forever be a safe GOP vote, with modest impact, as was the case with Sam Brownback? Or will he be a legislator of real consequence, like Bob Dole, Nancy Kassebaum, or Frank Carlson?
Great legislators are not born, but made. Dole is widely and rightly remembered for his 15 years in leadership between 1981 and 1996. But his early Senate years, while dotted with some significant accomplishments, such as working with George McGovern to pass the initial food stamp law, scarcely indicated that he would become one of the Senate’s great lawmakers.
One can argue that Dole, Kassebaum, and Carlson served in a different, less partisan era. True, to a point, but Dole’s strong, even virulent, partisanship was balanced by an overriding desire to pass legislation — especially on major issues like Social Security, tax reform, and disability rights. To that end, he often worked effectively with that great Democratic partisan and legislator, Ted Kennedy.
Jerry Moran’s willingness to challenge his party leaders and president stands out because he has rarely taken such a step. Nevertheless, as a House member in 2003, he did oppose Medicare D, a poorly designed drug bill. On policy grounds he was right, but his vote earned him the lasting enmity of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. In that sense, he took a major stand and reaped the consequences.
The American Health Care Act (ACHA) is a far more pernicious proposal than Medicare D ever was. To his credit, Moran is one of only two GOP senators to face his constituents in public meetings this week as he wrestles with how to vote on whatever the final bill will be.
If he stays the course and opposes this legislation, he will, like Sen. Kassebaum, provide some cover to other, wavering Republican senators. This is how power, influence, and respect can accumulate. Such a course of action is not electorally risk-free, but Moran has five years to work on behalf of Kansans to improve their health care.
Legislating is not easy, but that did not dissuade his noteworthy Senate predecessors. In visiting with Jerry over the next few days and weeks, we should encourage him to continue to exhibit the independence and (as he likes to call it) common sense that Kansans expect, appreciate, and deserve. Echoing James Russell Lowell, this is his time and our nation.
Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.