You can almost read Politico’s Charles Mahtesian and Jim VandeHei as writing in dialogue with political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. But whereas Mann and Ornstein blame the Republican Party for the extreme polarization and institutional dysfunction of the last several years, Mahtesian and VandeHei repeat the common Beltway lament—by allowing voters on the “far left” and “far right” to oust Blue Dog Democrats and centrist Republicans, both parties are responsible for Congressional polarization.
By virtue of its even-handedness, the Politico argument sounds more plausible, but—unfortunately—it also runs counter to all available evidence. Indeed, this is where Mann and Ornstein succeed; they gather evidence from the last thirty years of political history to show two things. First, that the Republican Party has veered sharply to the right, in a way that wasn’t mirrored by Demorats; and second, that the Republican Party has abandoned any commitment to existing rules or institutional norms. From the filibuster to the confirmation process, the GOP has abused the rules of Congress to stop or nullify laws passed by Democrats.
None of this factors into the Politico analysis. Instead, we get hoary old clichés about the nobility of centrist lawmakers, complaints about outside groups and an attempt to draw equivalence between ideological extremes on both sides, as if the “far left” has any kind of influence in the contemporary Democratic Party, much less liberal politics writ large. Here are a few of the most egregious parts of Politico’s analysis.
On the disappearance of Senate moderates:
The Senate, once the chamber of deliberation and reason, is getting its own extreme makeover. Moderates such as Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and Democrat Ben Nelson are bolting an institution that barely resembles the one they entered as idealistic deal-makers.
The tell here is the phrase “idealistic deal-makers,” which is a contradiction in terms. The defining feature of Senate centrists has been their categorical commitment to the “deal” and complete blindness to any broader principle. Ben Nelson agreed to allow an up-or-down vote on healthcare reform only in return for preferential Medicaid funding for his home state. Olympia Snowe voted for healthcare reform when it was in committee but quickly withdrew her vote after pressue from Republican leaders. Other centrist senators, like Joe Lieberman or Evan Byah, were equal in their political posturing, attacking the administration for attempting to pass an ambitious piece of legislation.
On the apparent power of the “far left”:
Centrist Democrats got that memo in 2010—they saw how labor almost took down Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who ended up getting crushed in November anyway. That’s just the Senate.
In the House, where the conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs saw their numbers cut in half in 2010, the climate isn’t much different. Five of the remaining Blue Dogs have already announced their intention to retire; two more lost re-election bids last Tuesday in Pennsylvania.