If you happen to see U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis with a finger pointing high in the air, it could be he’s proclaiming the Illinois State men’s basketball team No. 1. More likely he’s using a moistened index finger to check the strong and variable political winds. And with good reason.
These first 44 days of the Trump presidency have put him in a tight spot —more problematic than that faced by most of his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, most of whom have also been avoiding crowds while President Trump (ironic, isn’t it?) seeks them out.
Davis’ 13th congressional district was semi-schizophrenic in last fall’s election. Trump got 49.7 percent of the district vote, lagging Trump tallies that reached as high as 71 percent in surrounding downstate districts (60.6 percent in the district represented by Rep. Darin LaHood, who shares McLean County with Davis). Four years earlier, voters in Davis’ district were evenly divided between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Davis himself has been on, off and back on the Trump bandwagon. He distanced himself from the GOP nominee after hearing the president-to-be brag about groping women, yet later said he looked forward to working with him. But bring up the president and watch Davis try to change the subject. After doing a little soul-searching, maybe he’s fallen in with some other Trump supporters who are having second thoughts. Farmers, for instance.
Trump dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even though close to half the soybeans U.S. farmers grow are exported. He has clouded the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though Canada and Mexico together buy 29 percent of all U.S. farm exports. It’ll be hard for Davis to defend Trump trade policies in his largely rural district.
And he has to watch his flanks. Veer too far from Trump and Davis could face a primary challenge a year from now from the GOP’s right wing. Already there’s an “America First” organization prepared to take on Republicans identified by Trump as insufficiently supportive.
Meanwhile Democrats list Davis among the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election. Maybe they’ll be stirred to field a strong candidate next year.
Davis declines requests for customary town hall meetings where he’d meet groups of constituents face-to-face. He calls them “grandstanding events,” assuming (correctly, I believe, given the current political mood) that there would be more confrontation than conversation, jeers that drown out civil discourse, maybe intemperate video that would wind up on YouTube and in campaign commercials.
I think we can safely presume Davis already grasps that those 44.2 percent of voters in his district who supported Hillary Clinton are anti-Trump, that they are deeply concerned about issues like health care, immigration, women’s rights, gun violence, climate change, a growing tolerance for scandal, that there are teachers worried about education reforms, and trade and service union members fearful of talk about a national right-to-work law and an end to prevailing wage requirements.
With social media mobilizing citizens and Trump turmoil continuing, it seems unlikely respectful, productive town halls will resume anytime soon, and that’s too bad — a blow, really, to democratic ideals. It’d be better if constituents listened to what Davis had to say, politely made sure he understands their points of view, watch to see if he represents them in the way they like, and if he doesn’t — vote to replace him.
In the third season of TV’s “House of Cards,” fictional President Frank Underwood tells a national audience, “We say we’re here to serve you when in fact we’re serving ourselves. And why? We’re driven by our own desire to get re-elected. Our need to stay in power eclipses our duty to govern.”
When I first heard that two years ago, I considered it a woeful, repulsive observation. Yet history and experience tell me it’s often true. And given today’s political climate, I sadly conclude a little weather-vaning isn’t all bad.