Goodbye to the Center
The media’s favorite academic pundit, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, has slightly jumped the gun on the traditional Labor Day start of the fall campaign by flatly predicting that the GOP will capture control of the House of Representatives in November. Sabato says Republicans have an increasingly good chance of taking control of the Senate, too.
If Sabato is right, and his predictions are supported by lots of recent state-by-state polling, as well as the instincts of lots of political operatives, then – brace yourselves – the next Congress could be even more sharply split than the current one. The reason is simple: both parties, in a frantic race to secure the support of their most ideological supporters, have abandoned any notion that the center of the political universe is worth trying to capture.
Republicans, supported by the Tea Party movement, have dumped incumbent U.S. Senators in Utah and Alaska for extremely conservative alternatives. Bob Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska were deemed “too liberal” for the party base. By the same token, three incumbent Senate Democrats faced primary challenges from the left. Blanche Lincoln and Michael Bennet, alleged to be “too moderate” survived in Arkansas and Colorado. Arlen Specter, the party-switcher, didn’t make it in Pennsylvania.
The bottom line: in the reddest of the red states and the bluest of the blue states, the greatest threat to incumbency has now become the threat that an office holder will get “primaried.” Republican “moderates” are attacked from the right. Democrats get it from the left. Being called a moderate is about as helpful to one’s political future as being called a Taliban sympathizer.
This politics of the extreme left and extreme right has seen, for example, the career efforts of Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson – no serious person’s idea of anything other than a responsible conservative – being condemned by his own party’s convention. Simpson’s sin – laboring for ten years to collaboratively resolve the wilderness dispute in central Idaho. Resolving disputes is what legislators are supposed to do and it involves, in the best sense, compromise and, yes, moderation.
On the left, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs lashed out recently at liberal critics of the president suggesting that they “ought to be drug tested.” Gibbs said the “professional left” is just as out of touch with reality as some of the far out voices on the “professional right.” More evidence of the near complete polarization of our politics.
If Republicans do succeed in capturing the House, and maybe the Senate, in November they will find that the purge of the moderates will, in all likelihood, make getting anything of substance done in the next Congress virtually impossible. There are already predictions that the fault lines within the GOP will split the Tea Party crowd from the more traditional wing. Right now the party is united in opposition to Barack Obama and not united on how it might actually try to govern if given the chance.
If you think Congress is dysfunctional now, and under Democratic control it has been, then stay tuned. We my not have seen anything, yet.