Congressman Jason Altmire is a favorite whipping boy for local progressives. Most recently, we've seen this in the understandably outraged response to some his votes on health-care reform. It's no coincidence, obviously, that as progressives become increasingly depressed about the watered-down, sold-out reform, Altmire has grown increasingly upbeat about it.
My own defense of Altmire, such as it is, has been that for good or ill he reflects his district. District 4 lies mostly to the north and west of Pittsburgh geographically, and skews well to the right of the city politically. Altmire would be much more blameworthy, I think, if he had a voting record that angered progressives outside his district AND the voters inside it. According to this very interesting post today by Nate Silver, we do have such a Congressman here.
But it's not Jason Altmire. It's Mike Doyle.
Silver's methodology boils down to this: He took 10 key votes from the House of Representatives this year, and judged each legislator's party loyalty based on those votes. He then compared that legislator's loyalty to that of the voters in the legislator's district. In other words, Silver took each legislator's tendency to vote with Democrats, and compared it to his district's tendency to vote for Democrats. (Actually, I'm simplifying things a bit: Silver really compared the legislator's preformance to how other legislators from similar districts voted. But this is already getting complicated. )
Silver then ranked each Democrat according to how "valuable" he or she was to the party. A really valuable Dem votes consistently with the party, even though his or her voters tend to support Republicans in November. A not-valuable Democrat, by contrast, goes against the party, despite the fact that the folks back home consistently vote for it. As Silver puts it, such Democrats "potentially deserve a primary challenge" because "dumping them would leave the Democrats better off."
Jason Altmire does not appear on Silver's list of 25 most valuable Democrats, to be sure. But he doesn't appear on the list of least valuable Dems either.
Guess who does?
Clocking in as Silver's 6th least valuable Dem is Pittsburgh's own Mike Doyle. The reason is pretty simple: It boils down to Doyle's vote in favor of the Stupak Amendment, which would drastically limit a woman's right to control her own reproductive choices. Doyle is pro-life in a heavily Democratic district, and on Silver's chart, that swamps his loyalty to the party on other issues.
One could quibble with Silver's methodology. For one thing, from what I can tell the model seems to presume that all Democratic voters are the same -- that a Democratic voter in western Pennsylvania is as likely to be as fervently pro-choice, for example, as a Democratic in California. But that ain't so. I know plenty of pro-life Catholics, for example, who still support Democrats because of their stance on labor, environmental and other issues. Doyle's position, in other words, may reflect his district more accurately than Silver's statistical model does.
But if we're going to make that kind of excuse for Doyle, then maybe Altmire deserves the benefit of the doubt as well. He may not be the Dem we want him to be. But he may be the best that PA-4 is going to produce.