Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

The Center Can’t Hold if There Isn’t One Left

File Photo
Sen. Kent Conrad (right) has been a key figure in the “gang of six” deficit negotiations. But both he and Sen. Joe Lieberman are retiring next year, which will further deplete the ranks of centrists and dealmakers in the chamber.

There are a few Senators for whom the credential of bridge-builder between the parties should be an asset, including red state Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Mary Landrieu (La.), but there are simply too few of them to matter, and not enough of them have earned a widespread reputation for the art of the deal.

Just as important, of course, is that the gulf between the parties has grown wider over the past couple of decades.

Freshman Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth, for example, represents a swing district just north of New York City, and while she is more moderate on social issues such as abortion, she’s a conservative hawk when it comes to tax and deficit issues, reflecting the approach of many of her freshman colleagues from the South and rural Midwest.

During the 1970s and 1980s, liberal Republican Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. represented most of what is Hayworth’s current district. Moderate Republican Rep. Benjamin Gilman represented the rest of it. It’s unlikely that either man would have been as vociferous as Hayworth about ruling out selective tax increases to cut the deficit and debt, or as eager to cut spending on domestic programs.

There are certainly House Members who would benefit from a satisfactory compromise that shows both parties can be reasonable and principled at the same time.

Purple district Republican Reps. Charles Bass (N.H.), Leonard Lance (N.J.), Dave Reichert (Wash.) and Patrick Meehan (Pa.) surely would be better off with a compromise than without one, as would red district Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Mike Ross (Ark.). But none are in a position to do much, given the nature of the two House caucuses.

The result of all of these changes is that the center — such as it is — can’t force a deal, it can only sit idly by and hope that the left and the right can figure out some sort of arrangement that is satisfactory to each.

That makes the most likely outcome a newer version of “kick the can down the road,” a game that both parties have shown they are very good at.

Voters like the idea of divided government, preferring not to let one party call all the shots. That is understandable,  even wise.

But the lack of dealmakers and the growing chasm separating the parties means that divided government is more and more likely to result in paralyzed government than in political compromise, a prospect that voters may find even less appealing.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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