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The country, at least the politically sentient part, has been transfixed by the presidential and vice presidential debates. But actually the most transfixing moment in political debates this year came in a different race, in California, between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, two veterans of the House pitted against each another as a consequence of the state’s redistricting.
The contest has been hugely expensive, hugely intense, and it spilled over into a moment where Sherman put his hand on Berman and, how shall I put it, suggested fisticuffs, until a sheriff’s deputy stepped up and separated them.
California’s redistricting, done for the first time by an independent commission, shook up the status quo far more than usual and resulted in several incumbents departing, along with this major battle. It did not have to be this way; while the 30th district has more of Sherman’s old San Fernando Valley base, he had an option that Berman did not. Sherman was strongly urged by party heavyweights to run, with major party backing, in a new district in Ventura County, one he would have carried easily. But he opted to run against Berman instead, creating this major party divide and a deeply bitter contest.
I know both men, having worked with them over the years, Sherman on presidential succession, Berman on many things, including ethics. I like them both. I probably would not have written about the race. But Sherman has repeatedly attacked Berman for his foreign travel and his meetings with foreign leaders abroad, and that set me off.
I hate it when candidates or consultants take cheap shots at foreign travel. (When the cheap shot comes from somebody who himself is on the Foreign Affairs Committee, it is especially ridiculous.)
The larger fact is that all Members of Congress should travel, and travel a lot. They make hugely consequential decisions involving America’s role in the world — and involving the rest of the world — and there are few cost/benefit ratios better than the insight and sensitivity brought about by being in other countries, informing and improving important decisions made by Congress.
To attack Berman, of all people, for traveling and meeting with global leaders is particularly farcical. There may be no Member of Congress who generates more respect abroad than Berman, before and during his tenure as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and now as the ranking member. Berman has gravitas, and his meetings with leaders abroad have manifestly been in the national interest and have been supported by major figures in both parties. Berman has not met with foreign leaders to score political points, for ego tripping or to stick it to an opposing president; he has done so to advance the national interest.
It is no surprise that the attacks on him for his foreign travel have been repudiated by the likes of former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Madeleine Albright. Nor is it a great surprise that Berman has support from most of his colleagues in the California delegation — of both parties — and has also generated support from the likes of Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).
In this era of poisonous partisanship and tribalism, Berman has found ways on foreign policy and national security to build bridges across party lines. He is tough-minded but also fits well within the mainstream of his own party on foreign policy, and people from across the spectrum and across the aisle know they can trust him. That is true on other issues as well. The respect Berman generates abroad is replicated on Capitol Hill.
Over many years, when I have talked to him about Congressional ethics, continuity and reform, and about reform of the foreign policy machinery, he has proved to be one of the great institutionalists, committed to making Congress a better place.
I don’t endorse candidates (not that it would be worth much if I did). But that does not stop me from pointing out that Berman is an all-star, one of the very best Members of Congress I have seen, watched and known in 43 years of seeing, watching and knowing many of them.
And his willingness to craft a better role for America in the world, to find common ground with Republicans, to protect the country’s national security while promoting American values abroad, all while paying close attention to the needs and interest of constituents, is something to be lauded and applauded, not trashed.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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