You don’t have to listen too hard to hear the growing rumble of complaints about hyper-partisanship in Washington. It’s popular to lay the rap on Republicans, but three Democratic centrists who gathered Wednesday at the Bipartisan Policy Center weren’t pointing partisan fingers. Rather, they lamented sweeping forces that are banishing the moderates from both parties.
With the benefit of some distance now that they are out of office, former Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), former Representative Bud Cramer (D-AL), and former Representative Martin Frost (D-TX) mused about four pressures pushing politicians to the extremes of right and left: the nationalization of politics, the strong arm of party leadership, big money, and the media.
The nationalization of politics
Sen. Lincoln reminisced about the early days in her political career, when she would meet with Arkansas constituents to talk about their concerns and problems, and work with them to implement solutions. This was “retail politics,” she said, and it’s no longer possible. It’s all wholesale now, with issues and policy solutions coming from the national level down. Town hall meetings have become shouting matches with citizens dug in on extreme and hardened views, revved up by like-minded peers, connected across geographic boundaries through social media.
Rep. Frost observed that winning an election is now less about who you are and what you’ve done, and more about the national platform. Political primaries make the situation worse, he said. Candidates are pushed farther to the left or right when they have to run against extremists who might actually pull off a win in an ideologically-driven primary. Rep. Cramer cited more than one example of constituents who said they cast their vote neither for or against a candidate, but rather to “send their Party a message.”
The strong arm of party leadership
Rep. Cramer noted that after the dramatic takeover of the House and Senate by Republicans in 1994, moderate Democrats were very sensitive to the importance of defining themselves in terms of their individual records rather than strict adherence to the national party talking points. But pressure to toe the line was soon brought to bear by leadership.
Sen. Lincoln observed that the situation is now even more pronounced: members of the House and Senate are constantly aware of “being watched” by party leaders and by an increasingly -polarized base. Members are not rewarded for working with colleagues from another party. She referenced examples of good bipartisan bills that came out of committee but couldn’t get to the floor of their respective chambers because they represented compromise. “This is not what the electorate wants,” she said. “The electorate wants to see product; they want to see us getting something done.” The results of No Labels recent survey on problem-solving bolster her point.
Rep. Cramer added that the American people are “sick and tired” of this attitude. He reflected that members of Congress used to travel together, met together informally, saying, “That’s how we got to know each other.” But now those practices are frowned upon.
All three panelists emphasized the role of money in pushing parties away from centrist or moderate positions. Sen. Lincoln said that candidates now “accentuate the extremes” in order to raise funds from the party base and from special interests who favor ideologically-rigid positions. This includes funds that candidates solicit to support increasingly expensive national campaigns, and also funds that are raised by outside organizations who will act “independently” to drive votes their way. Even local races are now heavily influenced by money raised outside the candidate’s district.
Rep. Frost advocated for a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which paved the way for corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals to make unlimited financial contributions to Super Political Action Committees.
From the audience came the question, “Aren’t the voters as polarized as Washington?” Sen. Lincoln noted that the media is fueling this trend. People can easily find a news source that reinforces their ideology and tells them what they want to hear, and they do. Rep. Frost, who occasionally provides commentary on cable news, noted that television ratings illustrate the point well. Viewership is up for Fox News and MSNBC (whose coverage plays to the right and left, respectively), while CNN, which attempts more balanced coverage, is struggling in the prime time slots.
Were these leaders suggesting that we who favor bipartisan problem-solving should throw up our hands and acquiesce to forces that are out of our control? Not at all. But they agree that public outrage doesn’t seem to be making much difference.
The only way out of the current quagmire is for national leaders at the top to exert “bold, courageous leadership,” and to provide the public with clear, detailed commitments to working across the partisan divide to get things done.
Sen. Lincoln called on President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to step up first. Here’s the kind of statement she suggests they make: "Next January, one of us is going to be President of the greatest nation on earth. Our nation is facing tough and persistent challenges, and we believe the American people expect and deserve leaders who are committed to solving them. We have gotten together and identified three big things that we agree need to happen. You have a commitment from both of us that, no matter which of us is elected, we will follow through to accomplish these three results."
Sen. Lincoln suggested that if such a joint statement were to be made, the American people (now “sick and tired” and “furious”) would look up and say: "Wow, these people are really serious about getting things done; we are going to start paying attention again."
As she spoke, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it, but there have been so many disappointments lately that it was impossible to see. Perhaps this is why it is so important for those of us who have been turned off to tune back in—it takes a big community to hold a vision. What do you think?