Partisanship and Moderation Can Coexist

Has the political center disappeared? The Wall Street Journal thinks so, and cites the retirements of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson and Maine Senator Olympia Snowe as further evidence that moderation has died in American politics:

Ms. Snowe is one of an increasingly rare breed of senator willing to back legislation crafted by the other side. After President Barack Obama came to office, she supplied a crucial vote for his stimulus plan and supported his health law in committee, though she later opposed it on the floor. She also backed the New Start arms-reduction treaty at the end of last year.

If Ms. Snowe is one of the Senate’s least orthodox Republicans, Mr. Nelson is one of its least reliable Democrats. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D., Neb.) said Wednesday that he is reversing an earlier decision and will seek Mr. Nelson’s seat. Mr. Kerrey has a profile as something of a maverick. It isn’t clear whether he will depart from the Democratic line as frequently as Mr. Nelson.

One of the things that frustrates me about this genre of lament is that it fails to distinguish between partisanship and ideology. It’s absolutely true that Congress has become more partisan, and there isn’t much room for lawmakers who disregard the position of party leadership. Not that is a bad thing; the problem for Nelson and Snowe is that they represent constituencies that are at odds with the broader party consensus. But by retiring, they open the space for candidates who are in a position to better represent their constituents; because she would be insulated from cries of betrayal, a Republican would probably do a better job of representing Nebraska than a conservative Democrat, and a Democrat would probably do a better job of representing Maine than a moderate Republican.

But greater partisanship—and the turn away from bipartisanship—doesn’t actually mean that Congress has ceased to engage with moderate ideas. The fact that Republicans refused to support the Affordable Care Act doesn’t mean that the bill itself was liberal or beyond the pale; this is well-worn, but the ACA was a moderate piece of legislation comprised of elements drawn from liberal and conservative proposals for universal health care. By contrast, the failed Blunt Amendment—which would have denied employees health coverage if their employer had a “conscience objection”—was a right-wing piece of legislation that also had the support of Republicans and Democrats.

All of this is to say that there is a future for moderation in Congress, but that it will occur within the party caucuses—as a result of competing interests and concerns—and not between them. What’s more, because the Republican Party is far more conservative than the Democratic Party is liberal, that moderation is most likely to occur between Democrats. As someone who isn’t particularly wedded to bipartisanship as an ideal, this doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.