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The disappearing center

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:

“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.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/01/2012 - 02:48 pm.

    The Senate needs to get rid of the filibuster

    We would be so much better served without one house of the legislature operating, in effect, under supermajority rules.

    The Senate could get rid of the filibuster any session it wished to, simply by changing its rules at the beginning of the session. But the filibuster, holds, and other traditional operating rules give individual senators power that they would be loath to surrender.

    But the interests of the country as a whole would be in much better shape if legislation, judicial confirmations, etc., could pass the Senate on a majority vote.

  2. Submitted by Josh Lease on 03/01/2012 - 04:38 pm.


    This is another nonsensical column from someone in the media who has been bamboozled by the “moderation and bipartisanship” fetishists. A better comparison is the one Maddow did Wed night on her show, showing that when you analyze political positions as a matter of political ideology across the spectrum from liberal to conservative…the Democrats have remained essentially where they have been, ideologically speaking, for the past 30-40 years. The GOP on the other hand, has taken an incredibly hard turn to the right.

    So the idea of the “vanishing moderate” is truly a GOP problem and has nothing to do with the Democrats.

    It’s also the GOP that’s the party of total party discipline and refusal to compromise. These are not equal, “a pox on both their houses”, situations, much as the media likes to whine they are. One party, the GOP, will not do anything that Democrats might agree to, or could be seen as a victory for the president or the Democratic Party. The other party, the Democratic Party, has bent over backwards to try and get some cooperation and find common ground and been rejected at every turn. And yet media types continue to cast blame equally. Maybe the reason so-called moderates are leaving has something to do with this kind of crappy reporting.

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 03/02/2012 - 04:05 am.

      I agree

      What you said is spot on and an example of the horrific media reporting we have today.

    • Submitted by Pete Barrett on 03/02/2012 - 07:01 am.

      Shifting GOP, Not Vanishing Center

      This exactly the correct take on this. It’s lazy or disingenuous reporting to call it the vanishing center. It is the GOP shifting further right. And it is as true at the State Capitol as it is in Washington.

      Look at how the state government shutdown was portrayed last year. The tone was, “These kids don’t play nice in the sandbox”. After decades of “working the ref” the media in this state was fearful of angering conservatives by reporting the fact that the GOP had moved rightward while the Dems are still about where they were 30 years ago.

      Remember, even when the US Senate had the 60 Democratic votes for a filibuster-proof majority (for a very short time) they couldn’t hold all 60 voted together. If the Republicans have a 60 vote majority in the Senate, they get everything they want. It is far easier to peel off a few Democratic Senators that it is to peel off a few Republican Senators.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/02/2012 - 09:54 am.

      A matter of perspective

      The Democratic party may not have moved further to the left over the past 40 years (a position with which I disagree) but it’s not been centrist or moderate in the 40 years I’ve been casting ballots. The only Democratic presidential candidates to be elected in that time have been relative moderates, but only because they appealed to independents tired of the way Republicans had been running the show: Carter following Nixon/Ford; Clinton following Bush I; Obama following Bush II.

      If you expand your timeline to cover that same span, you’ll find more than adequate evidence of intransigence on the part of Democrats as well as Repulicans, whether it be in judicial appointments or elsewhere. Hands-across-the-aisle cooperation always has been rare, from either direction. Payback is alive and well in Washington, in state legislatures and in both parties.

      The health care legislation is a perfect example. But for those furthest to the left in the Democratic party, who fought for a single payer plan to the bitter end, the Democrats could have passed the essentially Republican plan we have today, with broader Republican support, had they simply acknowledged that a single payer plan wasn’t in the cards under any set of circumstances. That stance delayed the vote until after the Democrats had lost power, requiring technical maneuvers to pass the bill and giving the right fodder for their continuing campaign against it.

      From my perspective, the Democratic party has moved leftward at the same time as the Republican party has marched to the right, leaving people like me alone in the middle, looking for individual candidates for whom I can in good conscience cast my vote. That gets harder every year, in virtually every race, because the two major parties become more alike every year in one critical area: the desire to micro-manage our lives. They differ only in regard to the areas they wish to control.

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 03/01/2012 - 04:42 pm.

    But … The Blue Dogs

    Yabbut, the Blue Dog Democrats are right of center, and are therefore the moderates: Not liberal Dems, and not right-wing Republicans. Between the two extremes.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/01/2012 - 05:28 pm.

    The disappearing center

    And good riddance to it.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/01/2012 - 06:42 pm.

    This is actually a good thing

    There’s nothing more frustrating to the politically active than to have to deal with the DINOs and RINOs of your party because they’re wishy-washy and unpredictable.

    I like reliability in my representative and I’m sure you do too. Like the young fellow Hegseth whom you interviewed in another column, conservatives found out what they need to know about him and liberals did too. This is truth in advertising and is preferable to a politician who waffles and changes his position depending upon which way the political wind is blowing because he simply wants the job and all the perks that come with it. A curse on Olympia Snowe and her ilk.

    The republicans are wrapping up a primary season to see who gets to be the party nominee and for those who haven’t been paying attention, the contest has been about each candidate trying to convince the voters that they are the most reliable and consistent conservaative to carry the party banner.

    Ideological wimps and moderates are ridiculed and voted off the island. As it should be.

    I don’t recall how the Obama-Clinton primary went down in 2008 because it didn’t interest me. But didn’t they have some sort of litmus test they both claimed to pass to be worthy of their party’s nomination?

    We’ve lost sight of the purpose of political parties and that’s to create a brand that represents people who believe in and support the same governing ideas and principles. There’s nothing wrong with that. And people who want to muddy the waters with claims of “moderation,” whatever that means, aren’t doing anyone any favors when it comes time to make your choice of who will represent you and your views in government.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 03/02/2012 - 10:11 am.

      It’s called politics for a reason

      Politics is the means by which we make collective decisions on the panoply of issues we face as a society. No two people are likely to agree on every issue. Some issues will be more important than others to different people. Thus, one may be willing to concede a point in order to obtain a similar concession on a matter more important.

      This is not ‘wishy-washy’. It is a means of reaching a concensus and moving ahead rather than facing stalemate day after day.

      As for branding: there’s never been a minute in American history when any party’s members universally agreed on any issue. Like anything else in politics, party affiliation is a matter of the best fit, not a perfect fit. At this point in time, neither major party and no minor party is a good fit for me, leaving me free to support the people and the positions most consistent with my personal values. I suggest others try it.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 03/02/2012 - 11:36 am.

      How does this explain Romney?

      “This is truth in advertising and is preferable to a politician who waffles and changes his position depending upon which way the political wind is blowing because he simply wants the job and all the perks that come with it … Ideological wimps and moderates are ridiculed and voted off the island”

      Then why is Romney winning the primary campaign? You must be pretty disappointed, Dennis, the guy’s a political windsock.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/02/2012 - 12:17 pm.

        If you add up the vote

        He gets less than the non-Romney vote (Santorum + Gingrich +Paul)

        • Submitted by Lance Groth on 03/02/2012 - 12:56 pm.

          But the winnowing isn’t working

          Yes, but my point is that the winnowing process apparently isn’t working. Romney appears to be winning. You’re going to end up with a centrist in conservative clothing, and given his history, you’ll have no idea which way he’ll go on any given issue.

          • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/02/2012 - 03:39 pm.

            And that’s why we’re upset

            The fact that most republican voters are upset with how the game is being played makes my point, doesn’t it?

            The irony is, those who are wringing their hands about how there are no more “moderates” in the republican party should be happy and anxious to vote for the moderate Romney, right?

            But they’ll vote for Obama instead. Which kind of makes OUR point.

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 03/02/2012 - 07:24 am.

    Messers Swift and Tester live in their own little dream world…

    As David Brooks put it:

    “All across the nation, there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid. This year, they have an excellent chance to defeat President Obama, yet the wingers have trashed the party’s reputation by swinging from one embarrassing and unelectable option to the next: Bachmann, Trump, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum.”


    “Leaders of a party are supposed to educate the party, to police against its worst indulgences, to guard against insular information loops. They’re supposed to define a creed and establish boundaries. Republican leaders haven’t done that. Now the old pious cliché applies:”

    “First they went after the Rockefeller Republicans, but I was not a Rockefeller Republican. Then they went after the compassionate conservatives, but I was not a compassionate conservative. Then they went after the mainstream conservatives, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

    See you gentlemen in November, Mr. Swift and Mr. Tester

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/02/2012 - 08:26 am.

      Well if you really believe that, Mr. Gleason

      you should be elated. The only people I ever hear complaining and wringing their hands about how principled the republican party has become are non-republicans. And that includes David Brooks, who is an admitted Obama admirer.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/02/2012 - 09:25 am.

    Moderation is to blame

    The “center” of any political landscape is not some fixed independent point. By definition the center lay between extreme views on either side. It’s silly by the way to label someone like Lieberman a “centrists”, or a moderate, and it distorts the landscape to do so.

    The entire political landscape has shifted towards the right over the last 40 years. The political center is still there, there’s just nothing moderate about it. Beyond politics, American centrists are currently to the left of both political parties, and liberals are on the other side of that. You’ll notice that the popular revolts against republican extremism recently surprised the Democrats as much as they did the Republicans. The Democrats try to capitalize on them, but they follow, they don’t lead.

    This bizarre landscape emerged as a product of the great invisible ideology of “middlism”. The idea that the truth or solution must always lay betwixt two opposing solutions. Hence “moderation” drifts towards the most intransigent ideology over time. Instead of centrism we had lop-sided compromise. Eventually this drift makes moderation impossible because you end up with extremes that can no longer be compromised with. At that point the polarization emerges from the shadows and demands resolution.

    Oddly enough, the key to avoiding polarization is avoid lop-sided compromise masquerading as moderation. The truth is there is sometimes a truth, there are solutions and non-solutions. If you have one person telling you that 3+3=6 and another telling you it =4 the answer isn’t 5 because it’s in the middle. Sometimes you just have to fight for the right solution win or lose. In the long run that maintains the relative position of your political poles, and hence preserves a viable center when compromise is required.

    This is primarily a liberal failure. Liberals don’t seem to understand that sometimes you just have to fight, even if you lose. If Obama had fought for a public option in his health care plan, even if he lost, many progressives would have much more enthusiasm about him as a president for instance. If he’d fought and won, well that would knock out of the parks, but he didn’t even try and now he’s getting nothing but grief from both sides.

  8. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/02/2012 - 11:03 am.

    Santorum was right!

    There is a reason why most college staff are democrats. Educated opinions favor facts over fervor. If in order to be a republican you have to believe that global warming is a liberal conspiracy, evolution is a lie and the earth is only 5000 years old because the bible told you so, that being gay is a lifestyle choice, that we won’t need birth control once we get our women fitted for iron maidens, that it is America’s perogative to start wars when and where it wants because it is always right, that everybody should be packing weapons , that we can trust our billionaires to look out for the middleclass and the poor, that unions are always bad, that education is bad for the brain, that America should be run by a group of back woods Christian ayatollahs, and if you even waiver on any one of these you should be booted out of the party, then that party is doomed to eventually being stuck in one little corner of the political landscape and good riddance!

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/02/2012 - 11:07 am.

    The middle ground disappears when it is possible to have your own “facts”. The fracturing of the public knowledge access from relative monoliths to niche media outlets that enable the most implausible and ludicrous ideas to remain on the table and even be reinforced, when in previous times the ideas would not even make it to the table.

  10. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/02/2012 - 02:35 pm.

    I don’t consider Lieberman much of a liberal

    except perhaps in some social safety net votes. Otherwise, he and John McCain are a pair of neoconservatives seemingly dedicated to military solutions.

    Either Chafee or Jeffords would be a wonderful replacement for Lieberman. So far, though, the field includes these persons—

    Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-CT)
    Linda McMahon (R) – pro-wrestling kazillionaire
    Lee Whitman – put forth by AIPAC, the long-time Israeli lobby in the US Congress

  11. Submitted by David Mensing on 03/06/2012 - 03:10 pm.

    Another Factor

    Gerrymanders and the VRA. I would file the VRA under “unintended consequences”. Gerrymanders provide “vote sinks” that produce extreme candidates and representatives. What is the bluest Congressional District in Minnesota–the fifth–and who is the most extreme liberal in the Congressional delegation? The representative from the fifth. On the flip side, what is the reddest CD in Minnesota? It is the sixth, whose representative is the most extreme right-winger in the Minnesota delegation.

    From what I understand, the VRA provides states effected by it a ready-made way to have vote sinks and spikes that punch by adding a racial component. The larger southern states will have one or a few minority districts certain to be highly Democratic and surround those districts with right-leaning districts, guaranteeing the majority party 2/3 of the Congressional representation at least.

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