Texas congressman swallowed up by GOP tidal wave

Chet Edwards has no regrets about the controversial votes he believes helped cost him his Central Texas congressional seat.

But the 59-year-old Waco congressman is concerned that the departure of centrists like him from both parties is making Washington’s atmosphere so partisan it’s becoming impossible to compromise on long-festering issues like the budget deficit.

“Parliamentary government can work with two parties on the extremes of the political spectrum and nobody in between, because the ruling party has almost unchecked power,” Edwards said in an interview. “In our system of checks and balances, it’s completely different ... the big problems can’t be solved without bipartisanship.”

Decisively defeated last month after 20 years in the House, Edwards epitomizes the vanishing breed of Democratic moderates whose ranks were sharply reduced in last month’s Republican tide.

He backed Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on such controversial measures as the TARP bailout and the economic stimulus. But he balanced that by opposing Obama’s signature health care bill, his cap-and-trade energy measure and immediate repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military.

Still, after surviving three elections in a district that GOP leaders drew to elect a Republican — John McCain drew 67 percent there in 2008 — Edwards lost decisively to Republican Bill Flores.

“I could swim against a stream. I can’t swim against a tidal wave,” he said. “And this was a tidal wave.”

Edwards said he was hurt by his early support of Obama’s candidacy; his association with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who boosted him in 2008 as a potential Obama running mate; and his votes for TARP and the stimulus, along with the 17th District’s inherently Republican makeup.

Despite his votes against some key Obama initiatives, GOP ads charged he had voted with Pelosi 96 percent of the time, a figure that included many routine votes.

“The voters thought I’d sold out to President Obama on TARP and to Speaker Pelosi and President Obama on the stimulus bill,” he said. “And the truth is I voted with President Bush on TARP and with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the stimulus bill. But I did not get that message across effectively.” Neither did the Obama White House.

“The stimulus bill should have been debated as a positive for our country in terms of preventing 11/2 million to 31/2 million more job losses,” said Edwards, 59. “In our district, vital research for Texas A&M and a new hospital for Fort Hood were beneficiaries of the stimulus bill.

“But few voters know that they received a $1,600 tax cut or an extra $700 college tuition tax credit.”

Edwards said an incident several days before the election put things into context. While visiting a Waco hospital, he encountered a couple whose daughter had been killed by a drunken driver and whose son was in intensive care, both legs amputated after he was hit by a car while changing a tire.

“We shared some tears and hugs,” Edwards said. Afterwards, he called his wife and told her, “Lea Ann, if our biggest concern in life right now is whether we get more votes than somebody else, we don’t have a problem in the world.

“It just put everything in its proper perspective.”

Carl P. Leubsdorf, former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning New, can be reached at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.