Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Where Have All the Moderates Gone?

Jim Saxton, Sherwood Boehlert, Mike Castle, Lincoln Chafee, Wayne Gilchrest, Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays, Rob Simmons, Clay Shaw, Tom Davis, Vernon Ehlers, Bob Inglis, Norm Coleman, Gordon Smith, Olympia Snowe, Jeb Bradley, Steven LaTourette, Charlie Bass, Jim Leach.

I realize that this list of names means very little to most Americans; most might not even recognize a single name. That's not a knock on anyone; these people aren't famous, at least not by an relevant popular culture standard. So far as I know none of them have ever appeared on a reality television series, produced a best-selling hop hop album, or made millions off of an accidentally-on-purpose sex tape.

They are Republican members of Congress that have retired, are retiring, or lost their bids for reelection. None of them were Speakers of the House or Majority Leader, and none made themselves famous on the Sunday talk show circuit. But in their collective prime, taken together, they formed a core of thoughtfulness in the GOP that could steer policy-making away from the rocky coasts of partisanship.

When I first came to Washington in 2003, all of these people were actively serving in Congress. 2013 will be my ten year anniversary as a lobbyist in this town, and as of January each of the names that started this blog post must be referred to as former members of Congress. This represents what I view as being the single most important and influential shift over the past decade, away from the political middle and towards the political extreme.

Many of these people, like Mike Castle, Wayne Gilchrest and Bob Inglis, to name but a few, were beaten in hotly contested GOP primaries by candidates who were much more conservative, much more "acceptable to the base," so to speak.

In some cases, the Republican "base" doesn't represent the views of the electorate in the general election, which means their red meat candidate winds up at the butcher's come election day. These folks, who comprise a significant chunk of the GOP primary electorate, would rather lose on dogma than win on more practical considerations.  This was perhaps best illustrated in Delaware in 2010, where Mike Castle, long a respected figure in state politics was beaten by a wing nut in the GOP primary (that wing nut being Christine O'Donnell, who during the campaign found it necessary to deny that she was a witch). The wing nut had no chance in the statewide general election (which Castle would have won easily) and instead the win went to the upstart Chris Coons, a Democrat, who now serves as Delaware's junior Senator. As I have always said, when wing nuts dominate the primary elections, the primary elections can be counted on to produce wing nuts. 

But for whatever reason, all of these folks and a lot more, Republicans and Democrats alike, with a similarly middle temperament are gone, vanished nearly entirely from the American electoral landscape. Leaving behind them a wide gulf between the Right and the Left in Congress, which is now largely comprised of party-first groupthinkers who lack the ability or the desire to compromise on anything. And this despite the fact that every reliable poll of the last 25 years shows that more Americans self-identify as moderates and independents than as Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

It is strange but true that Congress doesn't actually look much like America politically, and I think there is more than a casual relationship between the reduction in the number of Congressional moderates and the reduction of Congress' approval rating; the slide in both has been concurrent and is almost assuredly related.

We see now with the Fiscal Cliff, which is only the most recent example, of two sides that seem unwilling to budge from what have become very deep lines in the sand. Every decision that Congress makes comes down to the last minute (the fact that the Fiscal Cliff was approaching was common knowledge in this town in the Spring of 2012, and yet still here we are), a redundant exercise in can-kicking. The fact that we have reached the Fiscal Cliff at all is because Congress has repeatedly punted on responsible revenue increases and spending decreases.

 In the days after the 2012 election, when Republicans lost the presidential contest by losing every swing state, and lost seats in the House, they started to assess just what went wrong and they decided that their candidates weren't ideologically pure enough, they were not sufficiently committed to the cause. And now, moving forward, the Republicans appear poised to double down on crazy.

Which brings to mind 1964, the year that Barry Goldwater, whose conservative purity no one can question, got rolled by Lyndon Johnson for the White House. That election has been viewed historically as a necessary bludgeoning, essential to returning the Republicans to the mainstream. In short, the Republicans had to get destroyed in a national election in which they put forward someone of unquestioned philosophical purity, so that the party could return to some level of intellectual normalcy. It has become clear, to me at least, that this type of election that serves to fundamentally reject scorched-earth conservative ideology, is necessary again. The future of the Republican Party, and perhaps the future of functional government might depend on it.



Dave Taylor said...

You omitted another important question: Where have all the moderate Democrats gone, especially in Maryland? They have moved so far to the left that it's unlikely JFK would get nominated for President today.

Al Redmer, Jr. said...

hey Steve,

Pretty ironic, but the last thing that Reps and Dems agreed on was the bill that actually produced the "fiscal cliff".

"Half don't know.....and the other half don't care!!"