Maine Senator Olympia Snowe stunned the political world yesterday by announcing that she would not seek re-election this fall, despite a significant fundraising advantage and never receiving less than 60 percent of the vote in any Senate race. Snowe’s decision opens a huge opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat in a blue-ish state.
In her announcement, Snowe—a noted moderate—cited the “partisanship of recent years in the Senate” to explain why she was suddenly throwing in the towel. Given that her staff didn’t even know about her retirement until the day she announced it, I have a hunch there’s something else at play here, but that’s neither here nor there—the loss of a moderate, who blames nasty partisanship for her demise, is catnip for much of the Beltway press. Many of them stick rigidly to the doctrine of false balance, in which both sides of the political spectrum are always equally to blame for… everything, and that includes the recent gridlock in Congress. Snowe’s retirement has given them a great opportunity to wisely tut-tut about how broken Washington has become, and say that everyone just needs to get along.
Politico’s Jonathan Allen published a piece that epitomizes this genre today. The article, “The center crumbles,” laments that “Congress can’t find the middle ground because no one’s willing and able to stand there anymore."
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.…
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.
What Allen’s piece, and many similar analyses, fail to point out is that only one political party has become more extreme and more partisan in recent years: the GOP. Political science professor Keith Poole conducted a comprehensive study that plotted every Congressional vote from 1879 to 2011 along ideological axes, and found that around 1980, Republicans veered sharply right, with no corresponding leftward shift from Democrats. In 2011, the partisan Republican (the “90 percent” Republican) is almost at the limit of conservative ideology, while the partisan Democrat is much further from the leftward extreme—and has barely shifted in the past thirty years. This analysis shows what we can see to be anecdotally true every day: while the Republicans are lockstep behind privatizing Medicare, there isn’t even close to Democratic consensus that Medicare should be extended to everyone.