Gail Collins: The panda angle

Published: Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 - 10:00 am

About politics and pandas …

This is obviously an attempt to get your attention by bringing up a cute and cuddly animal. But give me a break. It’s August.

Congress, as you know, has gone on vacation after setting a spectacular record for nonachievement. Some members are now home, preparing for hard-fought re-election battles in districts where nobody can predict the outcome. That would be about 12 of them. Others are preparing to campaign obsessively even though it’s already obvious that they’re going to win.

And then a bunch of them are off on trips. Because, August.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a veteran New York Democrat, is in China on an expedition financed by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs. While she’s there, she’ll be making the usual round of meetings and tours. Also, she’ll be visiting a national panda research base - from which, Maloney has suggested a time or 12, she would like to get a couple of bears for New York City. “The greatest city in the world deserves two pandas,” she told the Daily News.

Controversy arose when Maloney’s Republican opponent, Nick Di Iorio, complained that the congresswoman should be thinking about serious problems like jobs and Israel, where he is going on his trip. “It’s not a time we have a luxury of bringing back animals for a zoo,” he declared in a phone interview.

I’m not sure this is true. We all know that we’re not going to be getting a thing out of Congress next year, no matter who wins the elections. In that case, wouldn’t it be cool to have a panda?

It’s kind of metaphysical, really.

Or pragmatic. A happy electorate is an electorate with extremely low expectations. Congress never should have abolished earmarks. If we still had earmarks, we could just send these people off to Washington, cross our fingers and hope they’ll come home with a new highway exit.

While it is true that I once wrote that Carolyn Maloney is the kind of politician who would pander to a doorknob, this bear quest seems like a totally worthy endeavor. Even though there are no zoos in her district.

On the other hand, you cannot blame Di Iorio for raising the issue, since his options for getting media attention are pretty much limited to walking down Broadway naked or mentioning an adorable animal. (Or maybe starring in a reality TV show about hopeless congressional candidates. This did come up, but Di Iorio says he decided to drop the idea even before it became clear that the promoter was not going to be able to sell the series.)

Anyhow, the district is so heavily Democratic that the panda itself would win if it had the party line on the ballot. “Carolyn Maloney couldn’t lose if she tried,” said David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report.

Most Americans already know that their congressional elections are foregone conclusions. The Cook Report estimates 364 of the House races are in that general category. Meanwhile, there are 16 that are really competitive, about two dozen that are sort of competitive, and 32 others in which the challenger at least has a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

So Maloney’s constituents may look back at the panda exchange as the dramatic high point of the election season. And they will be luckier than a lot of other voters. I live in a district where the Democratic congressional candidate once won even though he was dead. Another time the Democrat was alive, but his challenger was a convicted arsonist.

Of course, there’s no such thing as an absolute shoo-in. Remember Eric Cantor! Cantor’s defeat showed that the system really did work and that even the House majority leader can lose a can’t-lose contest if he has an extremely irritating personality and spends the first half of Election Day out of town having breakfast with lobbyists. So there’s that.

Everyone’s been wondering whether California’s new nonpartisan primary system will improve the caliber of candidates, including long-shot challengers. We will see. This fall, in the district that includes Santa Barbara, Lois Capps, the Democratic incumbent, is facing Chris Mitchum, the 70-year-old son of Robert Mitchum whose own acting career included an important role in “Real Men Don’t Eat Gummi Bears.” It’s a liberal district, and Chris Mitchum is a Tea Party stalwart who claims he was blacklisted by Hollywood for having accepted a part in a John Wayne movie. Really, Carolyn Maloney constituents, thank your lucky stars.

But we were talking about the metaphysical implications of the panda controversy.

The biggest of which involves an important detail: Maloney is not literally getting anything in China. “It’s a long-term project,” said a spokesman. “She will not be returning from this particular trip with a panda.”

Democrat proposes panda. Republican complains about panda. There actually is no panda. It’s the circle of life.

Read more articles by Gail Collins



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