The Conscience of Cao

“I felt last night’s decision was the right decision for my district even though it was not the popular decision for my party.”

So said Anh “Joseph” Quang Cao (pronounced “gow”) the freshman Republican Representative from Louisiana after voting in favor of the health care bill Saturday.  Mr. Cao, the only House Republican of 177, called his support of the Democrat sponsored bill a matter of “‘conscience,’ that would help the poor and uninsured in his district,” The Washington Post reported.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) had earlier predicted that no Republican would support the bill.  In fact, Cantor “had been by Cao’s side when the voting started,” The Post said.  When Cao cast his vote, Cantor stood and walked away.

The Post also reported that, “White House aides had spoken several times to Cao in the days before the vote. But Cao, a devout Catholic… had largely ruled out backing the bill because of provisions that would allow abortions under programs created under the bill, although taxpayer funding would not directly be used.

“After a group of Democrats opposed to abortion successfully pushed Friday for a vote that would essentially bar new health programs created under the House bill from offering abortions, Cao said he called the White House on Friday night to say he would consider backing the bill.”

Cao, the first congressman of Vietnamese heritage and a strong social conservative, defeated nine-term Democratic Representative William Jefferson who was convicted of bribery when the FBI caught him with $90,000 in cash in his freezer.  According to his official Web site, “Joseph first arrived in New Orleans in 1992. He left to earn a Master’s degree in philosophy from New York’s Fordham University, returning to Loyola University to teach philosophy and ethics… However, his confidence in government’s ability to care for those in need weakened by the day…

“In Washington, DC, he became an advocate for refugees, future Americans who embody a can-do spirit and strong work ethic. In pursuit of justice for all, he attained a law degree from Loyola Law School. He became the in-house legal counsel for Boat People S.O.S, Inc., an organization helping poor Vietnamese and other minorities.

“In 2002, he was chosen by Archbishop Alfred Hughes to become a member of the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressing women’s rights in the Catholic Church, social justice, child abuse, and the Catholic response to Hurricane Katrina.”

The health care issue is not the first time Mr. Cao has taken a position against his own party.  “The soft-spoken Cao” The Post said, “had occasionally bucked his party in his first year in Congress, backing the Democratic-pushed resolution to condemn Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting ‘you lie’ during Obama’s speech on health care in September and also a bill unpopular among Republicans to extend federal hate crimes laws to gays.”

In describing the demands on political figures in his book,Profiles in Courage, then Senator John F. Kennedy wrote, “[A politician] cannot ignore the pressure groups of his constituents, his party, the comradeship of his colleagues, the needs of his family, his own pride in office, the necessity for compromise and the importance of remaining in office.

“He must judge for himself which path to choose, which step will most help or hinder the ideals to which he is committed.  He realizes that once he begins to weigh each issue in terms of his chances for re-election, once he begins to compromise away his principles on one issue after another for fear that to do otherwise would halt his career and prevent future fights for principles, then he has lost the very freedom of conscience which justifies his continuance in office.  But to decide at which point and on which issue he will risk his career is a difficult and soul-searching decision.”

In choosing to respect his own conscience this early, Mr. Cao may be putting his future on the line, but he also demonstrates the kind of political courage and leadership that is sorely needed today.

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