By Luke Brinker
It’s now something of a D.C. ritual for a recently retired member of Congress to lament the passage of the days when legislators would reach across the aisle and compromise by day, and get drunk together each night. Former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), who’s cashed in on his influence by securing a new job at the law and lobbying powerhouse K &L Gates, is but the latest:
Former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) witnessed an increasing paralysis and lack of civility in Congress during his quarter-century career in the House.
A “tremendous” contributor to this decline in camaraderie, said the recently retired lawmaker and current partner at K&L Gates, is the significant decrease in political centrists.
“You don’t have facilitators any longer,” he lamented.
Gordon has identified what he sees as a troubling trend in Congress: a steep downturn over the last 40 years in the number of lawmakers identified as centrist.
According to James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, around 30 percent of lawmakers in the 1970s were considered centrist, based on their voting records.
Today, that number has plummeted to between 5 and 8 percent of members of Congress.
No one can deny that the two parties have become increasingly polarized of late, but this narrative can be misleading. It suggests that both the Democratic and Republican parties have been taken over by ideological purists. While it’s certainly true that the Republican Party has become dogmatically conservative – it’s hard to imagine the party ever again electing a senator like the recently departed Charles Percy, who had a higher rating from Americans for Democratic Action than the American Conservative Union – liberal pressure groups do not exert nearly the same degree of influence on the Democrats that social and fiscal conservative groups do on the Republicans.
It’s important to remember that when organizations like the National Journal release their rankings of the most liberal and conservative members of Congress, a vote counts as a liberal vote if it’s supported by the preponderance of the Democratic caucus. The National Journal does not subject legislation to a qualitative evaluation, so you end up with decidedly centrist votes counting as “liberal.” For instance, the House-passed Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill of 2009 was significantly watered-down and riddled with giveaways to polluters, but because it represented a (feeble) attempt to address climate change, a vote for Waxman-Markey counted as “liberal,” even though some Democrats voted against it for the un-conservative reason that it didn’t go far enough. Likewise, a vote for the Affordable Care Act, which didn’t include a public option and included sweetheart deals with groups like the pharmaceutical lobbying giant Phrma, also counted as “liberal.” Ditto for the milquetoast Dodd-Frank Act.
To go back a bit further, a vote in 2007 to increase enrollment in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) counted as “liberal,” largely because President George W. Bush vetoed the expansion. But SCHIP, established in 1997 with the support of leading conservatives like Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, hardly constitutes an exclusively liberal policy. Indeed, votes to defend the post-New Deal status quo will almost always be counted by scorekeepers as “liberal.” A Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, presided over a top income tax rate of 91 percent and oversaw the creation of the nation’s interstate highway system. Those policies were well within the mainstream of bipartisan Keynesian thought, but are now the exclusive province of liberals.
With President Obama now pledging to implement a millionaire’s tax, corporate-friendly Democrats like Mark Penn are lambasting the president for abandoning the “vital center,” even though, as Greg Sargent pointed out yesterday, there’s nothing especially left-wing about what Obama is advocating:
To insist that this is only about winning over disaffected Dems is to misstate the nature of the bet the White House is making, which is a bet on where the true center of the country lies. Worse still is the unstated assumption underlying much of the analysis: That there’s no way the middle of the country could possibly embrace Obama’s new approach.
But as it happens, strong majorities of moderates and independentssupport tax hikes on the wealthy as the best way to close the deficit. I’ve compiled a half dozen polls showing that to be the case:
1) This month’s New York Times poll found that 86 percent of moderates, and 74 percent of independents, support deficit reduction through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. It also found that 65 percent of moderates, and 57 percent of independents, favor taxk hikes on those over $250,000.
2) Last month’s Marist-McClatchy poll found that 80 percent of moderates, and 68 percent of independents, support dealing with the deficit by raising taxes on income over $250,000.
3) Last month’s CNN poll found that 74 percent of moderates, and 62 percent of independents, think the deficit supercommittee should raise taxes on businesses and higher-income Americans.
4) Last month’s Gallup poll found that 64 percent of independentssupport reducing the Federal debt by hiking taxes on upper-income Americans.
5) A Washington Post poll in July found that 73 percent of moderates, and 64 percent of independents, favor reducing the deficit through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts. It also found that 80 percent of moderates, and 73 percent of independents, favor tax hikes on those over $250,000. (WaPo also has a nice chart of other polling on Obama’s jobs positions.)
6) An NBC/WSJ poll in July found that 66 percent of moderates, and 54 percent of independents, supported Obama’s approach to reducing the deficit over that of the GOP — including tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy.
Rest assured, support for a vote to promote tax equity will be portrayed in mainstream outlets as emblematic of a liberal position, even if numerous polls suggest it’s also the policy of the always-venerated ”moderates” and self-avowed independents.
In order to be accepted as a Very Serious Person, it’s obligatory to wish more Democrats and Republicans could just get along. And Very Serious People must also point the finger at both sides. But while Democratic politicians do all they can to steer clear of Code Pink, it’s now mandatory for Republican political figures to pledge fealty to the Tea Party agenda on economics, and to scientific denialism on evolution and climate change.