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The Lost Middle Ground

Bipartisanship is now studied as a relic of a bygone era, much the way paleontologists pore over dinosaur bones.

Recently, I had the honor of delivering the inaugural lecture at the Joe D. Waggonner Center for Bipartisan Politics and Public Policy at Louisiana Tech University. The center is named after a conservative Democrat from northern Louisiana who served in the House for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979, and sat on the Ways and Means Committee.

The bipartisanship common in Waggonner's day is now studied as a relic of a bygone era, almost the way archaeologists and paleontologists pore over ancient remains or dinosaur bones. That's a sad sign of how much things have changed or, to put it more accurately, deteriorated.


Neither party is solely to blame for the loss of this lubricating agent, which helped the legislative machinery function. Every time Democrats picked off a liberal or moderate Republican lawmaker in the Northeast or Midwest, every time Republicans picked off a conservative or moderate Democrat in the South or some rural district in the Midwest, and every time members of Congress unwilling to march in lockstep with their party finally opted just to retire, the change chipped away at bipartisanship.

Americans seem to sense this: A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 22 percent of respondents blame Republicans for the partisanship in Washington these days and 15 percent blame Democrats, but a whopping 61 percent say that the parties are equally unwilling to compromise and try to find a middle ground.

When I first came to Washington in September 1972, Congress abounded with conservative and moderate Democrats, as well as liberal and moderate Republicans. These lawmakers provided the ballast that prevented their parties from going to extremes. They kept the Democrats from driving into the ditch on the left and steered Republicans away from the one on the right.


Certainly, some Democrats did not appreciate Waggonner's close friendship with President Nixon. Indeed, the Bayou State lawmaker was dubbed "President Nixon's favorite Democrat." But he was a force to be reckoned with.

These are tough times to play key roles, as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., can surely attest. I wonder whether even some of the Finance panel's greatest chairmen -- Democrats Russell Long and Lloyd Bentsen, for example, or Republican Bob Dole -- would find it impossible to excel in this poisonous environment.

Talking with a conservative House Democrat from the South recently, I commented that it must be horrible to go home and get beaten about the head and shoulders by angry constituents. He added, "And then come back here and get beaten up in my own caucus." His remark reminded me of hearing a moderate Republican senator talk last year of being somewhat ostracized at a Tuesday Conference lunch after breaking ranks on a vote.

Some analysts have long embraced campaign finance reform as the cure-all for so many of our nation's political ills. But an equal or better case could be made for redistricting reform, for removing partisan politics from the drawing of congressional district lines -- as Iowa has done. That transformation wouldn't solve every problem, but a process that resulted in more lawmakers being attuned to swing voters would temper both parties in the House.


Redistricting reform might well have an indirect impact on the Senate, where much of the enmity is the result of extremely partisan House members becoming senators and bringing their hard-edged, take-no-prisoners behavior with them.

The statistics are clear: There is more straight-ticket voting now than in the past. Few voters seem to value electing a candidate with the willingness and temperament to reach across the aisle. When President George W. Bush's policies and politics became unpopular, moderate-to-liberal Republicans were the ones who paid the highest price at the ballot box in 2006 and 2008.

Likewise, if President Obama or congressional Democrats are out of favor in November 2010, conservative-to-moderate Democrats will lose in far greater numbers than their liberal colleagues. And the cycle of hyperpartisanship will continue.

This article appears in the September 26, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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