Olympia Snowe' and the Demise of Moderation in 2012

One by one they are leaving the public stage, complaining about a dysfunctional system. The moderates are having a meltdown.

Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who announced her retirement from the Senate this week, is only the latest to throw in the towel. There were also Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, Virginia’s Jim Webb, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad and Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman—people who don’t believe that making deals with the other party is an indictable offense.

Snowe, one of a vanishing breed of New England moderates, said she is bailing because she does “not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.” And who could argue with that?

The twin trends of polarization and redistricting have combined to produce a Congress largely populated by liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. Both parties engage in fierce partisanship, using the filibuster weapon, for instance, against the White House of the other party. Though it must be said that the Tea Party lawmakers have set new records for intransigence, pushing the country to the brink of default in the budget showdown last summer, even against the urging of their own GOP leaders. That’s why President Obama has largely abandoned the consensus-building approach of his first three years.

Those who favor bipartisan cooperation are often dismissed as mushy moderates. Snowe was one of three Republicans willing to vote to move Obamacare forward, though she voted against its final passage under enormous pressure. The days when a number of Democrats joined to support George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law seems like ancient history. And lawmakers who dare deviate from the party line get punished in primaries, as Delaware’s Mike Castle was in 2010 when he lost the GOP nomination to Christine O’Donnell. That’s why such conservative stalwarts as Orrin Hatch and Dick Lugar are now scrambling to the right.

The media play a role here too. Inflammatory talk gets rewarded with column inches and airtime. Harsh partisans are good copy. Moderates are deemed kinda dull.

All this has major implications for presidential politics. Every Republican candidate, including such certified conservatives as Newt Gingrich (sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi!) and Rick Santorum (voted for No Child!), have had to repent for past transgressions. Mitt Romney, of course, has had to renounce much of what he said and did in Massachusetts.

In declaring the other day that he’s not going to set his “hair on fire” with incendiary comments to win attention, Romney was drawing a rhetorical line in the sand. He’s not above moving to the right on abortion, immigration and health care, but he doesn’t want to do it in a flamboyant way.

Santorum, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus points out, recently observed: “They say, ‘Oh, moderates. We need to worry about moderates and the issues.’ Folks, if you’re a moderate, issues are obviously not the most important thing to you. Otherwise you’d be in one camp or the other.”

That strikes me as exactly wrong. It assumes that so-called moderates don’t care very much, that the only true believers are firmly embedded on the hard-line right or left. My sense is that a majority of folks prefer a pragmatic government that works, which is why some might vote for Clinton, then Bush, then Obama, or regularly split their tickets.

If people keep voting for highly partisan politicians, those in the Snowe mold may well become extinct. In that sense, the voters will get the government they deserve—one in which each party is more invested in wounding the other than in making modest progress.