In most newspapers, opinion columns published above the fold on the front page are as rare as lizard lips. It only happens when something big, big, big happens. The start of a war. Aliens invading. The sun exploding. Something humongous.
There was one in this newspaper a few days ago. At first glance, it seemed to offer Sen. Lisa Murkowski space for a tormented mea culpa after her vote supporting a failed Senate amendment that would have allowed employers to opt out of birth control or other health insurance on moral grounds.
But, a few reads later, it seemed more a vehicle to let the writer vent. "If she's a moderate," the columnist fumed about Murkowski, "she should vote like one."
Heaven help us. If anything, it illustrates a key point: Politics ain't for sissies, idealists or ideological dummies.
Murkowski, the story went, came home for the Iditarod only to be besieged by pesky, moderate women irate about her "yes" vote on the amendment offered by Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.
Blunt's Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011 would have allowed employers, based on moral -- but not necessarily religious -- objections to opt out of birth control or other coverage mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. It failed, 51-48, mostly along party lines, despite Murkowski's vote.
Those convinced they are entitled to "free" stuff at our expense wonder how Murkowski could have voted that way? In fact, Alaska Democrats brayed that she betrayed women. How could she? they wondered. She is, after all, a moderate. She supports abortion rights and contraception coverage. She often breaks with the Catholic Church or Republicans when it comes to women's rights. She's independent. She even backed Planned Parenthood, for crying out loud.
Apparently conscience-stricken, Murkowski appeared in the column to be suffering voters' remorse. A Catholic, she said she was trying to strike a blow for religious freedom -- Rick Santorum has made it trÃ¨s cool to be militantly Catholic by wearing his religion on his sleeve -- but her vote was being misread by the unwashed. She wanted, desperately needed, to repent, to bare her soul and make amends.
I thought she had lost her mind. Who is advising this woman? In the end, we have a U.S. senator trying to justify a purely practical, political -- and wholly understandable -- vote on moral grounds. What real choice did she have? It obviously was a perfunctory, up-or-down vote on an issue of great importance to the Republican Party. The GOP had been a sure victor in the ridiculous contraceptives war, battling persecution from the religious freedom trenches until the sneaky left turned it into a women's health care fight. Victory was slip-sliding away.
When the Missouri senator trotted out his over-the-rainbow amendment it was time for Republicans to back their party -- or not. Murkowski, eager to again focus on resources, gas prices and jobs, did what she had to do.
She is lucky to have had the chance. Apparently asleep at the switch, she lost the 2010 Republican primary election to Joe Miller -- he's got a Bronze Star, you know -- and then won the general election in the first successful write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate since Strom Thurmond's in 1954. She's mindful she pulled it off only with help from Independents and Democrats.
Nowadays, she is ranking member on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and a member of the committees on Appropriations, Indian Affairs and Health Education, Labor and Pensions, not to mention numerous subcommittees. She is coming into her own, running her own agenda but dealing with the GOP -- it was, after all, not much help in her last election -- in a manner that keeps her in the game and helps her advance. When she benefits, Alaska benefits.
Can it be any wonder to anybody, even someone with a soccer score IQ, that Murkowski occasionally must join ranks with the very folks who largely will decide her fate and future and success in the Senate? Really? Should she drop her Republican seniority and sign up as a Democrat to appease moderates? Hardly.
If she were going to say anything about her vote -- and, really, there was no need -- it should have been this: I did what was necessary to help Alaska. Period.
After all, if she's a politician, she should act like one.
No apologies needed.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.