Hartmann: A Tale of Two Congresswomen

Congresswomen Cori Bush and Ann Wagner illustrate our political divide.
Congresswomen Cori Bush and Ann Wagner illustrate our political divide. COURTESY CORI BUSH/U.S. HOUSE

Congresswomen Ann Wagner and Cori Bush will never be mistaken for one another.

Politically, the two women representing the St. Louis area in Congress — take that in for a moment — could not seem further apart: Wagner, the quiet conservative, middle-aged white Republican from the comfortable suburbs, and Bush, the vocal, progressive, young Black Democrat from the uncomfortable streets.

But the two also provide a case study in American politics because of what they have in common. Both steadfastly represent polarized constituencies that also represent just a subset of their own political parties. Wagner and Bush may be in the news as much for intra-party struggles as for battling one another.

The two congresswomen already are providing St. Louis a front-row seat to the political theater of 2021. The House's vote last week to impeach President Donald Trump was the opening act, with Bush taking center stage and Wagner remaining off in the wings.

Bush made the most of her 30 seconds on the Congressional podium with this striking statement, one that drew quite a bit of national news coverage:

"Madam Speaker, St. Louis and I rise in support of the articles of impeachment against Donald J. Trump. If we fail to remove a white-supremacist president who incited a white-supremacist insurrection, it is communities like Missouri's 1st District that suffer the most. The 117th Congress must understand that we have a mandate to legislate in defense of Black lives. The first step in that process is to root out white supremacy starting with impeaching the white supremacist in chief."

Bush thus made four more mentions of white supremacy than Wagner, who used her zero seconds at the podium to say nothing. If one didn't know better, one would have thought that Bush was the eight-year veteran of Congress and Wagner the two-week veteran. But that's quite reversed.

Wagner did issue the following statement, first making the case for impeaching Trump and then explaining why she decided not to join ten Republican colleagues in voting to do so: "January 6 was a dark and tragic day for our nation. We have a democratic process for a reason, and the future of our republic depends on us respecting the results of the free and fair elections in which we all participate. A hallmark of our country is peaceful protest, but last Wednesday's actions were not peaceful, they were violent actions intended to disrupt Congress's constitutional duty in the Presidential transition. President Trump's statements during and in the immediate aftermath of last week's assault on democracy were antithetical to the leadership our nation desperately needed in a time of crisis. America needs strong leadership right now. With so little time left this term, specifically with regard to the Senate impeachment process, I fully agree with President-elect Joe Biden when he stated the 'quickest way' for the President to be out of office will be to wait for January 20th when the President-elect is sworn in.

"It has barely been a week since those horrible events, and the impeachment process has moved at lightning speed. A consequential vote of this nature, something that has happened rarely in our nation's history, should only be taken after the appropriate investigations and a complete airing of the facts so our vote can be fully informed. This is a necessary step for impeachment that has been bypassed.

"That does not mean, however, that President Trump should escape accountability for his role in the violence that took place January 6th. I support censuring the President for his rhetoric to ensure that his behavior is not deemed acceptable to future leaders, or to our adversaries around the globe. While I am confident that a bipartisan censure resolution would pass both the House and Senate, unfortunately Speaker Pelosi has chosen further divisive actions that stand no chance of being implemented and do nothing to hold the President accountable. Our nation needs to heal and come together, not retreat further into partisan corners."

There's a bit to unpack here. Only one of St. Louis' two congresswomen referenced the need for strong leadership, followed by an expression of support for President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat. That would be the Republican Wagner, who at times may indeed turn out to be closer to the new president's positions than the Democrat Bush, who already has emerged as a fiery voice from Biden's progressive flank.

Wagner did imply falsely that Biden preferred Trump not be impeached. As for the process moving at "lightning speed," it is fair to say the insurrectionists moved faster, and so might an unhinged president. As for the appropriate investigations and complete airing of the facts, most of us are reasonably comfortable to trust our own eyes and ears. It was sufficient to rely upon the video from Trump's rally followed by the video from the white supremacists' trip to the U.S. Capitol that he specifically incited.

Wagner's statement that impeachment is "divisive" — as if censure would have brought together the nation in some sort of group hug — doesn't deserve much comment. And the idea that impeachment has "no chance of being implemented" is empirically wrong.

As for dissecting Bush's comments, well, either you believe Donald Trump is a white supremacist or you don't. I do. The evidence is hardly all recent, having dated back nearly a half-century when, as a grown-adult real estate guy, Trump refused to rent to Black people egregiously enough to get slapped by the Nixon administration's civil rights enforcement agency. How rich that irony is.

From his bigotry with the Central Park Five, to Black dealers having been hustled away when Boss Trump strolled the floor of his casinos, to the racist birtherism claiming President Obama was born in Kenya, to Charlottesville, to, well, you know the rest. If Trump isn't a white supremacist, he has certainly played one on TV.

Looking ahead, the newcomer Bush is ironically the known quantity. She is an unapologetic progressive, favoring Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, housing for all — she calls it a "basic human right" — and a wide array of other causes.

Bush's positions are clear, and in many cases more nuanced than she's given credit for. You can read them for yourself on her website: coribush.org.

In contrast, the veteran Wagner is the unknown quantity. Long situated as a George Bush-style, country-club Republican, she is like so many other members of her party compromised beyond recognition by the brute force of Trumpism. Just three weeks before the 2016 election, Wagner was one of a precious few members of Congress to demand Trump's removal from the presidential ticket in the wake of the infamous Access Hollywood tapes.

Almost overnight after his election, Wagner decided Trump wasn't such a hopelessly immoral man after all and became one of his more pandering sycophants. It's anyone's guess which Ann Wagner will emerge once Trump is gone while Trumpism looms in the background.

However that plays out, Wagner and Bush both figure to be as notable in 2021 in battles within their own parties as in opposing one another's positions in Congress. In that respect, at least, they won't seem so different after all.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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