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The disappearing center

Good-bye Olympia, Ben, Arlen, Linc, etc.

When I wrote yesterday about Sen. Olympia Snowe’s sudden decision to retire, I framed it in terms of the partisan battle for control of the Senate. But a New York Times story on the Snowe retirement this morning puts it in a different context — the vanishing of the Senate moderates.

Before the latest retirements, it was already the case that (according to the 2011 liberal-conservative vote analysis by the National Journal) the most liberal Republican in the Senate (Susan Collins of Maine, who barely edged out her fellow Mainer Snowe) was to the right of the most conservative Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Historically, this level of ideological cohesion of the major parties is quite rare, but over the last few years, it has become the new norm. So the Nelson and Snowe retirements will simply widen the gap and further depopulate the center.

As the Times mentions, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a long-time Democrat who was forced out of the party because of his support for the Iraq war and had to run as an independent to stay in the Senate, is also retiring. Lieberman, if you score him as a Democrat (and he continued to caucus with them) was the third most conservative Dem.

As the Times put it of the latest retirees:

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“They follow a parade of centrists out the Senate doors in recent years, including the Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh; a Republican-turned-Democrat, Arlen Specter; and two Republicans-turned-independents, James M. Jeffords and [Lincoln]. Chafee.”

In an era of such party cohesion and ideological polarization, mixed with the features of our constitutional system that make it hard to pass legislation without compromise, it gets harder and harder to see how the national government can work out solutions to the daunting issues we face unless one party or the other wins a landslide that gives it control of all the branches plus a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.