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12.28.11

Sen. Ben Nelson's Retirement Signals Twilight of Blue Dog Democrats

Centrist Sen. Ben Nelson’s retirement puts the Democrats’ Senate majority in jeopardy and could even spell trouble for Obama’s reelection. But the absence of his and other independent voices in Congress is the real danger.

The Blue Dog pack is thinning. Centrist Democrats saw their ranks cut in half after the 2010 midterm elections. Now, with Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson’s announcement that he will not seek reelection, an endangered species warning is appropriate. This is bad news for Democrats and, more important, the nation.

There was a time when divided government did not mean dysfunctional government. The presence of conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans helped ensure that cross-aisle coalitions could be formed to find solutions on the most pressing issues of the day, from the Marshall Plan to the Interstate Highway System to civil rights.

But with the two parties now starkly polarized along ideological and geographical lines, and inter-party RINO and DINO hunting purges increasingly encouraged, centrists from both parties are becoming a rare breed in Washington.

Nelson is a prime example, facing a tough reelection campaign from Republicans at home and increasing hostility within his own party and its liberal commentariat. He had a flawed record, at times compounding the negative stereotypes of centrist senators as horse-traders. But in the end, he was an independent voice who put the interests of his constituents ahead of party interests—and that is something to respect.

According to National Journal rankings, Nelson was the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and therefore defiantly difficult to pigeonhole. He was anti-abortion but voted to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the military. He supported the Bush tax cuts but also was a pivotal vote for President Obama’s health-care reform, (briefly) securing a federal reimbursement for Nebraska’s Medicaid expenses that became instantly infamous as “the Cornhusker Kickback.”

During his first term, he played a pivotal role in the Gang of 14 negotiations that ensured that a president’s judicial picks would not be filibustered, but instead would receive an up or down vote. Significantly, the ceasefire was broken this fall with the filibuster of Obama D.C. circuit court nominee Caitlin Joan Halligan. Bipartisanship has fallen out of favor in Washington, and with it Ben Nelson.

With the 2012 elections looming, centrist Democrats like Nelson have a bulls-eye on their backs. Democrats start off the cycle at a significant disadvantage, with 23 seats to defend, compared to 10 for Republicans. Nelson has been at the top of the list of vulnerable incumbents, despite winning reelection in 2006 by a record 64 percent in Republican-leaning Nebraska.

Nelson joins a growing list of centrist Democrats who have announced their retirement, including Kent Conrad and Jim Webb, along with independent Democrat Joe Lieberman. In the House, Blue Dogs like Dan Boren are deciding to hang up their spurs, even as coalition leaders like Heath Shuler achieve new prominence with bipartisan pushes for deficit and debt deals. And in most cases, when a centrist Democrat retires, his or her seat is ripe pickings for Republicans. The best shot Democrats now have at keeping the seat is an encore campaign by the beloved former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who’s spent the last decade leading the New School in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Liberal Democrats who like to gripe about the corrupting influence of what they call “Conserva-Dems” ought to be careful what they wish for—an early incarnation of their logic led to Ralph Nader winning 48,000 crucial votes in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

Urban Democrats in the Obama era perhaps do not appreciate how their message can be seen as elitist and out of touch by colleagues representing rural districts and red states, but to have a winning coalition in a country where just 20 percent of voters self-identify as liberal, a bigger tent is essential.

On the flip side, conservative groups who’d backed Nelson in the past, such as Americans for Tax Reform and Nebraska Right to Life, weren’t going to support him this time around because he had the wrong letter after his last name. His 48 ranking from the American Conservative Union in 2010 wasn’t doing him any lasting favors on either side of the aisle.

At a time when our politics is looking like a cult, there is no tolerance for principled dissent. Dissent is disloyalty and punishable by either the threat of excommunication or electoral execution.

For Democrats, Nelson’s retirement could have unwelcome national implications—and not only in terms of keeping control of the Senate. Nebraska allocates its electoral votes proportionately, with Omaha giving candidate Obama its one delegate in 2008 while the more rural rest of the state went for McCain. In a tight 2012 election, one delegate—and a strong Democrat running for Senate boosting turnout—could make all the difference.

Liberal Democrats who like to gripe about the corrupting influence of what they call “Conserva-Dems” ought to be careful what they wish for.

But the larger story has less to do with Nelson than with the death of bipartisanship in Congress courtesy of polarization and hyper-partisanship. The declining numbers of centrist Democrats in the Senate and Blue Dog coalition members in the House compound the false narrative that American politics is a choice between the far right and far left, red states and blue. It makes cross-aisle coalitions more difficult and leads directly to the dysfunctional gridlock that has made this Congress the least popular in recent history.

The solution is to have more centrists in both parties, defiantly willing to reason together in the national interest instead of obeying their respective special interests. That’s the only way divided government can work again, as it has in the past. But right now, the returns on that strategy are diminishing, as once popular and influential centrist senators like Ben Nelson decide that odds are stacked against them in Washington.