PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For one who would like to see more Democrats in Washington, I spend a disturbing amount of time trying to save the party from itself. Polls show Democrats on the popular side of many big issues: healthcare, Social Security, the environment. But then they go out and lose it on the small stuff. Case in point is their recent tango with the mad-cow "threat."
Mad-cow disease is a nonissue in the US. As far as we know, not one person has ever died from eating an American cow infected with mad-cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). And it's not as if Americans haven't been testing beef safety. How many millions of burgers go down every day?
The mad cow discovered in Texas last month was only the second ever found in the US - and the first one came from Canada. The Texas cow never entered the food supply, but even if it had, no one would have been the wiser for it. That's because the only parts of a mad cow believed to make humans sick are the brain and spinal cord. Americans almost exclusively eat the muscle meat.
To allay any new fears, the US Department of Agriculture moved to tighten the already stringent rules preventing and monitoring mad-cow disease. So as the July 4 weekend approached, Americans rightly shrugged off any concern over the steak supply and fired up their grills.
But some Democrats could not relax. They went zealously to work, trying to get the mad-cow death toll down from zero.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California called the administration's response "more public relations than public health" and demanded a congressional investigation into "what went wrong." Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut said that discovery of mad-cow disease in a native-born animal required "a major overhaul of coordination between HHS [Health and Human Services] and USDA [US Department of Agriculture]."
At this point, I'd like to ask Mr. Waxman and Ms. DeLauro what they are doing about the bee menace. Bee stings kill at least 40 Americans a year.
Why are Democrats flogging a phony food scare? I have no idea. True, cattle farmers are hardly a core constituency. There are probably more people in Waxman's Los Angeles district who think they have mad-cow disease than there are ranchers who voted for John Kerry.
But the mad-cow dance does hurt the Democrats. First, it mars their growing reputation as the party of sound science. Republicans are the ones attacking 21st-century research on stem cells and global warming. Some even have trouble with the 19th century - witness the fight over evolution. Democrats put at risk their advantage when they push junk science.
Second, thoughtless attacks on agriculture harm the Democrats' prospects in the heartland. America's center is not raw Republican red, as some coastal types think, but medium-rare pink. The conservatism in plains and mountain states tends to be more libertarian than Bible Belt. Democrats can get elected in these places if they strike the proper tone.
For example, Democrat Ken Salazar became the US senator from Colorado by promoting his humble farm origins. When the second mad cow was found, he jumped to the defense of the cattle industry. He dismissed the discovery as largely insignificant - noting that 400,000 cattle were tested for the disease last year, and only one was found to be sick. That means things were going right, not wrong. "Like millions of others, I will be eating beef for dinner tonight," he announced.
"We like to say that Colorado is a Republican state, but Democrats can win here," says Bob Loevy, professor of political science at Colorado College. He notes that while 80 percent of Coloradans now live in metropolitan areas, ranching remains a beloved part of the culture.
In Nebraska, Sen. Ben Nelson, also a Democrat, was working to reopen key Asian markets to US beef. Their doors shut in 2003, when the first mad cow was found.
Without people like Mr. Nelson and Mr. Salazar, Democrats are never going to see real power again on Capitol Hill. And, in any case, who do Waxman and DeLauro think they're pleasing with their mad-cow nonsense? The radical vegetarian vote is already in the bag. They should be out helping their colleagues in the heartland.
This is a big country, Democrats.
• Froma Harrop is an editorial writer at The Providence Journal. ©2005 The Providence Journal. Distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.