Derringer: Could Dingell’s legacy end our fondness for amateur hour in politics?

February 12, 2019, 11:10 PM by  Nancy Derringer

When was the last time you needed work done on your car? Did you take it to a garage and ask for the least experienced mechanic on staff?

When was the last time you saw a dentist? Did you do the same thing?

“Brenda the hygienist will be doing my cleaning? Brenda has been in this office for 10 years! Don’t you have a rookie?”

You maybe see where this is going. In all areas of human endeavor that require skill -- which is to say, most of them -- we prize experience over all. Training and continuing education are important, as is a willingness to learn new techniques and approaches as a field evolves. An open mind is vital. But nothing substitutes for years on the job. And so I ask again:

When you need a knee replaced, a heart valve repaired, even your rotten appendix out, do you want the doctor who just learned the technique? Or do you hope and pray that if you do draw that straw – because every doctor has to start somewhere – there’s someone older and more experienced monitoring them?

As I suspected.

A career politician of rare longevity – and accomplishment.

This week, Michigan is mourning John Dingell, the former congressman who held his seat in Washington longer than any other. He was elected in 1955, a young man not yet 30 years old, and left office an old man, knocking on the door of his 89th birthday. The photos of him taking his first oath of office from Sam Rayburn are startling -- you can trace familiar outlines in his jaw and profile, but for those who’ve only known him as elderly, it’s a reminder that time spares no one.

And what is the one bell rung over and over in the remembrances of Dingell published in the past few days? His accomplishments.

He had a hand in so much landmark legislation, I could fill paragraphs just cutting and pasting from the tributes that flowed in over the weekend. Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the Civil Rights Act. Medicare. The Affordable Care Act. And so much more.

A job done well, over decades

Over his career, power in the House of Representatives swung between parties like a pendulum, more than once. Dingell worked as a member of the majority and the minority. He learned what works in both positions, how to negotiate, maximize your advantages, use leverage, compromise, give a little, get a little.

Today, in a fine example of the stupidity of the age, many would call Dingell a “career politician,” and hold his experience against him. Fortunately, voters didn’t, and Michigan is better for it. I used to live in Indiana, where in 2012 primary voters broomed a career politician and towering figure of the U.S. Senate, Richard Lugar, in favor of Richard Mourdock. Remember him? If a woman gets pregnant as a result of rape, he said, “God intended that to happen.” That gave Hoosiers Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, for one term. Now they’re trying their luck with Mike Braun. We’ll see how that works out for them.

For those out there thinking but-but-but, I hear you. Dingell succeeded his father, John Sr., elected in 1933. He was succeeded by his wife, Debbie, in 2015. If she can hang on for 14 more years, a Dingell will have been in the House, serving more or less the same district, for a century. Is this a healthy milestone to reach? Is there anything to be said for new blood, for no more Bushes, Kennedys, Levins, Romneys? Yes, of course there is. An ambitious newcomer might be advised to relocate from Dingell’s 12th Congressional district. Although Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it should be noted, pulled off an upset in another district that was supposed to be uncrackable.

But here’s my point: If you want a better Washington, a better Lansing, stop penalizing experience. Stop pretending that whatever you call it – politicking, horse-trading, compromise, negotiation – is some sort of character defect and not a skill that improves with practice.

Otherwise, we’ll deserve what we get the next time we ask that our house be painted by some person who just figured out how to open a can and handle a brush. Only the stakes are far, far messier.

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