Wow. The midterm results of yesterday were an eye-popping defeat for congressional Democrats. Although Barack Obama has at least two more years in the White House, his party has lost its sizable majority in the House and now has a truly razor thin margin in the Senate. The biggest part of the story, however, may not be the change in party control of the House. Instead it may be the near disappearance of ideological moderates in both chambers of Congress.
It is an old adage in American politics that the middle tends to rule. The reasons are straightforward and go beyond our constitutional framework of separate institutions sharing power. Imagine an ideological line that stretches from the far right to the far left, with moderate viewpoints located at the center. If the preferences of legislators can be arrayed along that line, then policy outcomes should turn out to be near the median position. Any proposals to move legislative outcomes in a liberal direction would be defeated by a coalition comprised of the median lawmaker and everybody to her right. And any proposals to move the outcome in a conservative direction would be defeated by a coalition compromised of the median lawmaker and everybody to her left. Sure, the filibuster and the 60-vote requirement for cloture complicate things in the Senate, but for generations this basic political logic has tended to drive legislation in Congress toward the center.
Not any more.
Over the past few decades, the number of conservative Democrats and (especially) liberal Republicans has dwindled to almost zero on Capitol Hill. Last night, as I was glued to the election coverage, I was struck by the fact that so many of the Democrats losing their seats were among the few remaining ideological moderates on Capitol Hill. And, for the most part, these Democrats were defeated by very conservative Republicans. Just look at the Democrats that lost in Virginia – Boucher, Nye, Perriello … all ideological moderates replaced by staunch conservatives.
When the 112th Congress convenes in January, not only will there be no ideological overlap between the parties in the House and Senate, the ideological gap that exists between them will have grown to remarkable proportions. We truly have congressional parties that are two warring ideological camps firing salvos at either other from a very wide distance.
Split party control of our national political institutions and the absence of a filibuster proof majority in the Senate means that neither party can govern without reaching across the partisan aisle. So the key questions are this …. Are deals between the parties on major issues possible when so few participants in the bargaining actually want outcomes located near the ideological middle? Or will our elected representatives instead prefer to stand firm, refuse to compromise, and primarily focus on posturing and gamesmanship aimed at carrying the day in the next election?
I think I know the answers to these questions and my guess is that you do too. And I also think that we are going to miss the moderates.