The Vanishing Center
November 25, 2012 - 7:46 am
Partisans from both sides will probably cheer the news that there are fewer “moderates” in this Congress than there were in the last. Old RINOs like me might bemoan that fact, but even I am pragmatic enough to recognize the new playing field and contemplate what it means for the art of governance.
When the next Congress cranks up in January, there will be more women, many new faces and 11 fewer tea party-backed House Republicans from the class of 2010 who sought a second term.
Overriding those changes, though, is a thinning of pragmatic, centrist veterans in both parties. Among those leaving are some of the Senate’s most pragmatic lawmakers, nearly half the House’s centrist Blue Dog Democrats and several moderate House Republicans.
That could leave the parties more polarized even as President Obama and congressional leaders talk up the cooperation needed to tackle complex, vexing problems such as curbing deficits, revamping tax laws and culling savings from Medicare and other costly, popular programs.
“This movement away from the center, at a time when issues have to be resolved from the middle, makes it much more difficult to find solutions to major problems,” said William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a private group advocating compromise.
In the Senate, moderate Scott Brown, R-Mass., lost to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who will be one of the most liberal members. Another GOP moderate, Richard Lugar of Indiana, fell in the primary election. Two others, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Olympia Snowe of Maine, are retiring.
Moderate Democratic senators such as Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, James Webb of Virginia are leaving, as is Democratic-leaning independent Joe Lieberman.
While about half the incoming 12 Senate freshmen of both parties are moderates, new arrivals include tea party Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, conservative Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and liberals such as Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono.
There’s a similar pattern in the House, where 10 of the 24 Democratic Blue Dogs lost, are retiring or, in the case of Rep. Joe Donnelly, R-Ind., are moving to the Senate. That will further slash a centrist group that just a few years ago had more than 50 members, though some new freshmen might join.
Among Republicans, moderates like Reps. Judy Biggert of Illinois and New Hampshire’s Charles Bass were defeated while others such as Reps. Jerry Lewis of California and Steven LaTourette of Ohio decided to retire.
“Congress seems to be going in the opposite direction of the country, just as the country is screaming for solutions to gridlock,” said Democratic strategist Phil Singer.
The question in my mind isn’t so much ideology as it is temperament. I have absolutely no problem with so-called “strong” conservatives just as long as they are interested in governing the country. And for 235 years, that has meant compromising with those on the other side of the aisle in order to achieve a legislative goal. Allowing ideology to cloud one’s judgment and prevent government from acting — especially in an emergency like we have today — is a betrayal of the public trust.
Yes, some “moderates” believed in compromise to the exclusion of principle and good riddance to them. But the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. In the end, what is needed even more than compromise is the shared belief in the good intentions of both sides. This is impossible today considering the present ideological fervor that grips both parties, but is vitally necessary if an acceptable deal is to be reached that will avoid what many economists see as another recession if the country falls off the fiscal cliff.
Some of the most principled men ever to serve in Congress were also known as great compromisers. The most famous of these was Henry Clay, one of the most powerful individual congressmen who ever served. His overriding principle at all times was to save the union. To do that, he sacrificed his ambition to be president by angering his fellow southerners with the Compromise of 1850. No one much liked the bill, but it kept the union together until the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln made compromise with the “fire-eaters” in the south impossible.
Given the dearth of moderates, are there enough ideologues who will recognize the national interest and come to an agreement? Even if there are, it is doubtful the mass of partisans who make up the base of the two parties would allow them to take a single step back from positions on taxes and spending that are set in stone. Attracting the enmity of the tea party or the “reality based community” means political suicide for many members who might otherwise be inclined to support a deal. Hence, the notion that even a deal reached by the president and party leadership will probably fail when it comes to a vote in both chambers.
Perhaps it will take a calamity like another deep recession to wake us up. More likely, the partisans will spend the next 2-4 years blaming each other for something that could have been avoided in the first place if members had placed country over petty politics.