Byrd and AlitoIn a recent post, Brian Hornback expresses utter shock that Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has come out publicly in favor of the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court. Others I have talked to express similar wonderment at how the “King of Senate Pork” and someone who is widely seen as “liberal” can support Alito. From what I am hearing, a whole lot of you are shocked and pleasantly surprised by this development. I, on the other hand, am not socked, surprised, or otherwise taken aback by this development. Those who are simply have not followed Senator Byrd’s career the way that I have.
Say what you want about Byrd, two words that describe him and his personality are “old-fashioned” and “astute.” I don’t disagree that his pork-barrel antics are unacceptable, but I will say that in West Virginia, that kind of thing will get you votes. This is because it is hard for people there to see as pork some thing Senator Byrd devised in his head that may have secured for them a job in something other than a fast-food restaurant or a coal mine. When Republicans get elected in West Virginia (and yes, they do, and Bush won W.Va. twice) they don’t do so by complaining about “pork” and railing against Byrdist fiscal thought. This is because in West Virginia, if you do this, the odds are pretty good that at least one (and probably more) member(s) of your audience may have a job because of Senator Byrd.
Does that mean that people in West Virginia are all liberals who love pork and want a welfare state? No, certainly not. Most people in West Virginia think welfare is dishonorable, and would rather work in a coal mine than have their family on the public dole. In the eyes of a lot of folks in West Virginia, however, any job is better than no job at all, and that includes a “New Deal” sort of arrangement like Senator Byrd might make. When good jobs are scarce, people will embrace someone they see as providing them. Pork it may be, and ethically questionable it certainly is, but Senator Byrd understands that reality, which is why he will probably serve in the Senate until he dies.
The other thing Senator Byrd understands is that West Virginians are socially conservative. They might embrace his pork-barrel spending because it is seen to benefit the state and provide many people with work. He knows, however, that most West Virginians are church going, bible reading, God-fearing people. Prayer in school still happens in many parts of West Virginia, note that the ACLU hasn’t been successful in stopping it, perhaps out of fear for what might happen to the lawyers they send if they do. It is because of this underlying social conservatism that Senator Byrd supports Judge Alito, and he said as much in his speech on the Senate floor.
Byrd also correctly interpreted what the role of the Courts is in our federal system, which is proof of a deeply ingrained social conservatism in his mind. I am not saying that Byrd is a conservative, not in the same way that I am or others that I know are. Byrd does, however, have a conservative social outlook. That is a reality I have known for years, and so Byrd’s actions are hardly surprising. In fact, when the GOP is in sore need of an extra vote here and there, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Senator Byrd steps forward. He doesn’t get called “the loose cannon” by his own Party Leadership for nothing.