(The following was submitted by Kevin Teigen in response to U.S. Senator John Hoeven’s support for Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.)
If you measure political success by margin of victory in elections, Sen. John Hoeven is one of the best politicians in the country. Just months ago, he garnered 78.5 percent of the popular vote. A large portion of this success is due to party affiliation; he is a Republican in a solidly red state. But underlying that simple truth has been another critical factor: John Hoeven does not take risks.
Hoeven was once a Democrat. His switch of affiliation happened around the time he first ran for governor. Heidi Heitkamp was the wildly popular Democratic attorney general and shoe-in for the Democratic nomination. He was more likely to beat her in a head-to-head race in the fall than in spring. He had never run as a Democrat, so the change wasn’t a revolution. It was a calculated move to avoid risk.
He was popular as Governor and often thought of as one of the few Republicans who might unseat Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad, or Earl Pomeroy—the state’s U.S. Senators and Representative. Despite the persistent whispers of him challenging one of those incumbents, Hoeven did not announce his candidacy for Senate until Dorgan announced his retirement. In other words, he waited to run for an open seat rather than running against an incumbent. Challenging a popular incumbent, after all, is a risky prospect.
The nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education came before the Senate this week. Her performance in the confirmation hearings was, by most accounts, incredibly poor. No Democratic senators supported her nomination. Two Republicans opposed her as well. Up until shortly before the vote, Hoeven was listed as undecided. His office was flooded with calls, letters, and emails urging him to vote against confirmation.
He knew he had political capital based on his recent election. He knew voters have six years to forget about this vote. He knew his party really wanted his support and that they would have opportunity for retribution in his newly-begun second term. His was a choice of certain repercussions now or the chance of repercussions later. He was among the 50 senators who cast a “yea” vote – the less risky option.
Hoeven is wildly popular with his constituents and independently wealthy. This is a fact pattern for which every politician dreams. He need not pander to party or donors and his “plan B” could be to merely retire and live off his wealth.
A century before Hoeven, another man entered the political arena with considerable family wealth great popular support. He used his to popularity to remain independent of party bosses and his economic status to remain independent of special interests. By doing so, he was beholden to nobody. And when those forces found they could neither control nor ignore him, they quickly learned to work with him. As a result, on his ascension to and tenure in the Presidency, Theodore Roosevelt accomplished some of the most significant social reforms in the country’s history.
His path wasn’t always smooth. While Roosevelt aggressively pursued what he believed was right, he lost elections for New York City mayor and President of the United States. He backed unsuccessful candidates for party nominations. He sometimes engendered the wrath of prominent people. He was a courageous man. He leveraged his wealth and popularity in the pursuit of great things. He was a great man.
I don’t know John Hoeven personally. I don’t doubt that he is a good husband, father, and neighbor. I don’t doubt his work ethic or his intentions. I’m sure he is a good man. In my observance of his career, however, I have never seen him exhibit courage. As sure as I am that he is a good man, I’m equally sure that unless he develops the courage to take a risk, John Hoeven will never be a great man.