For all the talk of how America is following in the footsteps of debt-riddled Greece, here is one way our politics is charting a very different course: We are not waiting to reach the very edge of the abyss before moving our parties away from the center.
One of the big stories from today’s primaries, which for the most part have been rendered less than front-page news outside the states holding them any given day, will be whether longtime Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar survives a challenge from tea-party favorite and State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. A recent poll (there haven’t been many of them) suggests Lugar’s time is up.
The headlines will be about the tea party throwing out a respected member of the D.C. establishment in a fit of ideologically pure pique. Yet, increasingly this kind of result is dog-bites-man news — for both parties.
Last month, Pennsylvania Democrats threw out a pair of “Blue Dog Democrats” from the U.S. House. The Blue Dogs, who tried to push laws such as Obamacare in a more moderate direction when Democrats held all the levers of power in 2009-10, have gone from a peak of 54 members in those years to a projected 23 when the 113th Congress convenes next year. Most of those losses have come at the hands of Republican challengers in general elections, or via retirements. But as the New York Times reported about the Pennsylvania races:
The ouster of the Democratic incumbents — and the tough primaries being waged against some House Republicans — suggest that redistricting ultimately is going to send more liberal Democrats and more conservative Republicans to the House.
That may be true in U.S. House races, where voters can be moved around during redistricting, but we’ve also seen changes in Senate races that cover entire states.
Lugar would be one example, with the list of ousted Republicans also including Bob Bennett of Utah in 2010 and, perhaps, Utah’s Orrin Hatch this year. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska lost her primary in 2010, only to win re-election as a third-party candidate write-in Republican [note: the foregoing text has been corrected -- KW] in the general election. So did Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman in 2006, whom Democrats punished for his support of the Iraq war just six years after appearing on the party’s national ticket as its vice-presidential nominee. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas had to go to a runoff to remain the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2010, eventually losing her seat to a Republican that November.
On the other hand, GOP voters chose as their nominee the man who, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, was considered the most moderate person in the field — even if the Obama campaign will now spend months trying to convince you Mitt Romney is a dangerous extremist. So the move away from moderation has its limits.
When primary voters in both major parties punish moderate incumbents, the idea seems to be that they want to elect more people truly committed to the cause. But can the cause ever be advanced if the other side is equally committed to electing people determined to block it? Can either party, moving away from the center, elect enough of its own members to push through an agenda that will be uniformly opposed by the other party? The huge Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008 were not typical of our electoral history — and their overreach afterward was sharply rebuked by the voters in 2010. Can the Republicans make a similar follow-up gain this year as they are also moving away from the center? Does the pendulum really swing that fast? And why wouldn’t it just keep reversing course rather than staying in your preferred direction for very long?
How this trend plays out in the long run is anyone’s guess. My guess is that, sooner than later, the electorate will tire of the pendulum moving so far, so fast. But there are two recent examples from Europe that suggest the mushy middle doesn’t necessarily work, either.
The most recent one is, as advertised above, from Greece. Sunday’s elections there were a smackdown of the country’s leading center-left and center-right parties, both of which backed the bailout-and-austerity package from Greece’s European neighbors. Together, the two main parties won just 32 percent of the vote — down from 77 percent in the last elections a few years ago. The largest party won less than 19 percent (although it will have a larger share of the seats in parliament).
More pertinent, however, is the nature of the parties that ate into their vote totals. The second-place party is called — this is the translation of the party’s name in Greek, not my editorial comment on its policies — the Coalition of the Radical Left. The Communist Party won 9 percent to finish fifth, and a neo-Nazi party (known as the “Golden Dawn” party) won 7 percent to wind up sixth. Together, the Communists and the neo-Nazis will have almost one-sixth of the seats in the Greek parliament. Two brand-new parties took another one-sixth of the vote.
Think about that: A collection of Communists, neo-Nazis and two parties that had never competed before managed to equal the votes of the country’s two longest-standing parties. If that’s not a rebuke of the establishment, I don’t know what is.
Another anti-centric example is Northern Ireland. For years, centrist parties representing the two opposing viewpoints there — remaining in the United Kingdom, or separating to join the Republic of Ireland — tried to make deals. It wasn’t until the two extremes on each side took a stab at working together that power-sharing under the Good Friday accord actually worked.
Of course, we are not in the dire straits of either Greece, which has already had one technical default on its debt, or Northern Ireland, which suffered decades of self-inflicted terrorism. Nor have we seen if either of those examples yields good results in the long run. (One of history’s greatest — and most humble! — foreign correspondents reported from Northern Ireland just before power-sharing began there, questioning whether two extremes could truly co-exist for very long.)
The jury is still out here, too.
– By Kyle Wingfield