The center won’t hold in Washington — in fact, it’s fleeing.
Maine Republican Olympia Snowe called it quits on Tuesday, following Democrats Joe Lieberman, Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson in a voluntary exodus of Senate centrists.
In the House, three straight wave elections wiped out Main Street Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. The Democratic caucus got more liberal, the Republicans more conservative.
The empty center has given President Barack Obama plenty of room to confront Republicans from the middle on some issues and the left on others without getting pinned down.
It seems that Congress can’t find the middle ground because no one’s willing and able to stand there anymore.
The few who venture out from the shelter of their party find that the reward doesn’t match the risk. Offer a willingness to work with the other side, and be labeled a traitor or worse. Ask Richard Lugar of Indiana, or Orrin Hatch of Utah — who watched angry voters sack Republican favorites in 2010 and are running hard to the right to avoid that fate.
But for some like Snowe, the question is, why bother?
The prospect of running hard to win another term — particularly a six-year Senate term — is less and less attractive for folks who came to Washington to make things happen only to find out there’s no common ground to get things done, only partisan point-scoring that leads to paralyzed politics.
Even the big stuff Democrats and Republicans swear they want to do — cutting the deficit, reforming Social Security and Medicare — forget it.
“The sense is that the body has sort of lost its way, and ‘Do I want to spend six more years if I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel?’” Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview Tuesday night. “I guess what Olympia’s telling us is that she doesn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Graham, who knows a thing or two about shifting between partisan and peacemaker, said the departures of Snowe and other veteran lawmakers is less about ideology than it is about dysfunction.
“It’s an institutional problem,” he said. “It’s just our inability to move forward on the big issues of our time.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) left his post as the No. 3 Republican earlier this year because he said the partisan demands of leadership made it impossible for him to make progress on issues that he cared about.
“I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues,” Alexander wrote in a letter to colleagues. “There are different ways to provide leadership within the Senate. After nine years here, this is how I believe I can now make my greatest contribution.”
It’s not that all politicians have given up on the desire to appear as centrists. Obama, who has seen a resurgence among independent voters in recent polls, was quick to embrace Snowe’s brand of politics on Tuesday.
“From her unwavering support for our troops, to her efforts to reform Wall Street, to fighting for Maine’s small businesses, Sen. Snowe’s career demonstrates how much can be accomplished when leaders from both parties come together to do the right thing for the American people,” Obama said.
But it’s harder and harder for members of Congress to get along in their own caucuses, to prevent or win primary challenges and to excite their party base in general elections if they find too much in common with the other side.
It used to be that the basic political calculus was simple: Go to Washington, get things done, campaign on the achievements and get sent back to Washington. If a lawmaker did well enough, he or she would accrue some seniority, move up the committee ranks and deliver for the home crowd.
But the old trappings of success as a lawmaker now make it harder to win reelection.
State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who is running against Lugar in a Republican primary in Indiana, ticks off Lugar’s supposed political sins — some of which are simply reflective of the fact that Hoosiers keep sending him back to the Senate.
“People are looking at where our federal government is, the excessive tenure, the fact that he’s distanced himself from Indiana willingly, that he’s certainly out of touch on a lot of the primary issues that move primary voting blocs — the hard core of our party — and they just think he’s gone Washington, he’s been gone too long,” Mourdock said in an interview with POLITICO last week.
Lugar’s hardly a Snowe-style centrist. He’s scored a 100 percent rating from the Chamber of Commerce six times between 2001 and 2010 and supported President George W. Bush at rates between 78 percent and 100 percent during his years in office, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) only backed Bush 76 percent of the time in his last year as president.
There are, of course, exceptions that prove the rule. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican running for reelection in a Democratic-tilting state, has found plenty of opportunities to stake out a centrist position — sometimes siding with Obama over Republican leaders in Congress — as he tries to defeat Elizabeth Warren. At the State of the Union address last month, Brown sought out Obama to try to get a little presidential push on a bill that would enhance a ban on insider trading on Capitol Hill.
But Snowe’s decision to bolt has Washington’s centrist club fretting again over the thinning of its ranks in Congress.
On the House side, three of the four members of the centrist Democratic Blue Dog Coalition’s leadership team are retiring at the end of this year. A group that saw its ranks swell to 52 members after the 2008 election is now in danger of dropping into the low- to mid-teens next year because of retirements and defeats at the ballot box. Seven of the 25 current Blue Dogs are retiring from Congress, and Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) — who is a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership — announced his retirement on Wednesday.
Mark McKinnon, co-founder of the nonpartisan group “No Labels,” said it’s no wonder lawmakers are getting out of Dodge.
“No Labels shares Sen. Snowe’s frustration with the polarization and gridlock that is gripping Capitol Hill,” McKinnon said. “Too many competent legislators have retired from Congress for the same reason as Sen. Snowe. They’re sick and tired of being trapped in a rotten system.”
Lieberman agrees with this diagnosis.
“One of the things Sen. Snowe clearly said was that she doesn’t see any hope for the partisanship to lift in the foreseeable future and therefore, she was thinking about six more years in the senate and it was less appealing to her than it otherwise might be,” Lieberman said. “I hope everybody hears that. Look, the tragedy here is that everybody I know who comes to the United States Senate comes to get something done, and that’s the real reason they come here, and yet people are sort of pulled apart by this process.”
In a powerful indictment of the place she worked for 33 years, first in the House and then in the Senate, Snowe said much more.
“Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term. So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate, which is what a fourth term would
entail,” she said.
“As I enter a new chapter, I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us. It is time for change in the way we govern, and I believe there are unique opportunities to build support for that change from outside the United States Senate. I intend to help give voice to my fellow citizens who believe, as I do, that we must return to an era of civility in government driven by a common purpose to fulfill the promise that is unique to America.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this story.