Extremes rule both parties, as centrists lose their seats

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 5, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The center may be falling out of American politics.

About two dozen moderate to conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives were defeated this week, leaving a more liberal party in Washington.

Also, several moderate to liberal Republicans were turned out through the year, ousted by primary challenges from more conservative candidates and leaving a more conservative party behind.

The result is a more polarized Congress. That could complicate efforts to solve some of the country's biggest problems, such as government deficits and debt, especially as outsized voices on talk radio, cable TV and in the blogosphere pressure the parties not to compromise.

All this risks driving politics farther from the American people, many of whom still stand squarely in the middle of the political road.

"Bit by bit, the center in American politics is getting weaker," said William Galston, a top policy adviser in the Clinton White House and a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

In the Democratic Party, this week's elections drove out about half of the conservative Democrats in the House, mostly from the South.

Among the losers: Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, who voted against the Democratic health care law, opposed "cap and trade" energy legislation and voted for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for president in 2008 against his own party's nominee, Barack Obama.

The remaining Democratic lawmakers, particularly in the House, will be more liberal, and under great pressure from such outside groups as labor unions not to make any compromises that would cut federal spending, particularly for pay or benefits for government employees.

In the Republican Party, dozens of tea party conservatives won seats in the House. They're likely to pressure GOP leaders to make deep cuts in government spending, and to oppose any compromise with President Obama.

Tea party candidates defeated moderate rivals in Senate primaries through the year. Among the moderate GOP victims: Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, Secretary of State Trey Grayson of Kentucky and Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah.

The ultimate example: Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, whose political fate this year evoked the old line from Texas Democrat Jim Hightower, who sneered, "There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."

A moderate to liberal Republican for most of his career, Specter was often right in the middle of Senate deal-making that bridged the two parties.

Conservatives finally forced him out of the party last year, when he switched to become a Democrat rather than face a GOP primary that he thought he'd lose to a more-orthodox conservative Republican.

Then he was driven out of the Democratic Party, losing its primary this year.

In his years in Washington, Obama often has shunned the center.

He never embraced the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, co-founded by Bill Clinton; Obama once declined to appear at a council meeting even though it was in the same building as his campaign headquarters. Obama also refused to join one of the most publicized efforts of the George W. Bush era to forge a centrist compromise, the "Gang of 14" center-minded senators, who worked out a deal to get Senate approval for President Bush's judicial nominees.

Obama said this week that he was willing to compromise, but he declined to fault any of his policies as misguided, and signaled that he'll fight any effort to repeal the health care overhaul or cut spending on such things as education or energy research, which he increased in last year's package to stimulate the economy.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., his party's leader in the Senate, signaled that his side won't give, either.

"The mandate for change is directed at the other guys," he said.

Some influential forces outside of Congress suggest that there's room to deal. Sal Russo, the strategist behind the Sacramento, Calif.-based Tea Party Express, said the group knew that there had to be deals in order to get to the larger goal of curbing the federal government. "Most people recognize that you have to give to get sometimes," he said.

Others aren't as flexible.

"What is all this talk about compromise?" radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said this week. "Compromise is off the table. They didn't want to compromise with us and we have no business compromising with them. They lost. Losers compromise. We don't. We've got nothing to compromise."

"It means absolute gridlock," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "Any hint of compromise is seen as treason."

If the two parties dig in to defend their ideological agendas, that might well appeal to their base of voters. But they'll risk further alienating the broad center of the country.

"Both parties in Congress have become farther apart and more homogenous. Yet if you look at public opinion, the electorate looks about the same as it did in the 1970s, with a big center," said Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford University, a scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution and the author of the book, "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America."

"This was not an ideological election," Fiorina said. "This was people saying, 'We want to see the government work.' "

Galston agreed that there's a disconnect between the political parties and the people, but he suggested that the center also is shrinking among the people.

He noted that the ranks of Americans who call themselves moderate — one definition of the center — have been shrinking. The total of self-identified liberals has remained the same, while the ranks of conservatives have been growing.

"Elected officials are more polarized than the American people," he said. "But the American people are more polarized than they used to be."

(Halimah Abdullah and David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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