E-mail: A Plea to Be Taken Seriously

The scuttlebutt in Washington, D.C., on Monday afternoon was that the e-mail that Congresswoman Kristyn Wong-Tam sent to her Democratic colleagues praising the Trump administration’s decision to roll back vaccination protocols for certain strains of measles—a move that could result in the deaths of thousands—was read by the entire Democratic caucus before it was circulated to the news media. What I didn’t know then was that it was not only Wong-Tam who was included in the email.

It went to the entire caucus, but it was personalized for each legislator. Behind the scenes, it was something akin to an intra-dem caucus pea souper, with several lawmakers tweeting early in the day that they had missed it.

The e-mail was an act of cowardice. Everyone knew it, and it was one of the reasons that Wong-Tam attracted criticism from within her caucus for running for a seat in Congress.

But it was one of the most righteous political and ethical gestures I’ve seen in years.

Almost all members of Congress send e-mails to one another for social purposes, and whether you agree with their arguments on important policy matters or not, you almost always see their faces staring back at you when you read their missives. That’s the power of the e-mail.

Wong-Tam’s message, of course, didn’t speak about policy. It spoke about an individual, and about the fact that we’re all human beings in this world, and that we all deserve dignity and respect, and that this was a human and political issue.

There’s another reason, though, why, for nearly half the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., this was not a message that should have been read. It’s the fact that nothing has ever really been about the politics of e-mail in the Senate. Most e-mails in the Senate are carefully-worded summaries of issues that have become public policy, rather than other long-winded policy arguments. If there is one thing that is true about the Senate, it’s that it is not about policy, at least not a lot of the time. You can debate how much influence legislative staff is giving to a particular senator, but that, in itself, is hardly a sign of contentious Senate politics. It’s about function.

Finally, there’s another reason why this is a child’s mama’s e-mail. It’s because this fight isn’t over. This issue isn’t going to end just because this administration thought it was a good idea to stop vaccinating children. Even at its worst, we’re talking about a one-time decision that struck in order to create an environment of fear where there was some fertile ground for this particular measles outbreak. When the old rules aren’t the only rules anymore, it’s hard to fault government officials for taking risks. But all you’re doing is having measles flare up again, and you’re giving people like me—people who know better—more reason to dismiss you as the kind of thing that goes on in D.C.

That’s no way to win an argument on policy.

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