WASHINGTON—Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower once dismissed centrist politics with a wisecrack he'd heard from a farmer: "Ain't nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos."
This summer, there's no more dangerous place for a politician to be than the middle of the road. Primary voters and interest groups in both parties are pushing hard for partisan purity and punishing those who stray too close to the center—or the dreaded other side.
Next up is Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who faces a strong conservative challenge from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey in a Sept. 12 primary.
Chafee, considered his party's best hope to hold the seat in the liberal state, has nonetheless come under a barrage of criticism from conservatives. They're weary of his support for abortion rights, federal spending and gay marriage and opposition to the Bush tax cuts.
Even if they subsequently lose the seat to a Democrat, some conservatives say it would be worth it to get rid of Chafee. Says the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group opposing Chafee: "It wouldn't be much of a loss if a new Democrat senator were elected, as he would vote much the same as Chafee does now."
It might not make a difference to them on the tax issue. But nationally, this could be a close election where the loss of Rhode Island might turn over the entire Senate to Democratic control.
Chafee also is a member of the Gang of 14—seven senators from each party who brokered a compromise that allowed Senate confirmation of some controversial Bush appointees to the federal bench while preserving the right of the Democratic minority to filibuster, or block, nominations and legislation.
That outraged conservatives, who wanted the Democrats neutered, even though they got nominees that they wanted confirmed.
"This one hit me personally harder than I think anything ever has coming out of Washington," said Dr. James Dobson, head of the conservative group Focus on the Family.
Overlooking for a moment the many things that have come out of Washington that might be even worse—think of legally upheld segregation, if you will, or legalized abortion, if you're of that persuasion—the offense here was the Gang of 14's act of compromise. "Betrayal by a cabal of Republicans," Dobson called it, adding ominously, "This is not over."
Indeed, both sides are mad about centrist compromises.
Another member of the Gang of 14, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., was defeated in a primary a week ago. A key reason was his support for the war in Iraq. But just as important was liberals' anger that Lieberman was cordial with President Bush and worked with Republicans on other issues, such as school vouchers and judicial nominations.
"It's all about who you sleep with," said liberal activist and filmmaker Michael Moore.
We've seen this kind of take-no-prisoners partisanship before.
Most recently, we saw it as the frustrated House Republican minority under former leader Bob Michel of Illinois, the sort of legislator who disagreed agreeably, evolved to practice the more confrontational politics of Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
That led to endless investigations and President Clinton's impeachment—much as today's liberals press for Bush's impeachment.
And it led to the one-party, parliamentary-like reign of Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and the rule that the House votes only on proposals supported by a majority of Republican members. Democrats need not show up; compromise with them wasn't necessary.
The problem is that the governing Republican Party has stalled in Bush's second term. It couldn't muster the votes to change Social Security. It hasn't even tried tax code overhaul. And it's divided over immigration.
While the American people demand action to control the borders, compromise is out of the question. So, apparently, is action from Washington.
Today, liberals and Democrats display the same kind of tolerate-no-compromise attitude that fed the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
That's a recipe certain to please the parties' fringes—but unlikely to help the winners govern.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail email@example.com.)