Amid Washington’s inability to find compromise on the debt-ceiling, one of the lawmakers most likely to find common ground said he’s leaving Washington because he’s fed up with partisanship.
The surprise announcement on Monday by Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, comes as he eyes a possible gubernatorial run in 2014. But he also bemoaned Congress’s intractable political polarization.
“While I have worked hard to bring folks to the middle to craft common-sense solutions to the many problems that confront our nation, Washington is mired in gridlock, gamesmanship, and constant partisan bickering,” Ross said in his home state. “Too many issues and votes are based on partisan politics rather than good public policy.”
His retirement raises new questions about the long-term viability of the Blue Dogs, more than half of whom retired or lost election last year. More broadly, Ross’s departure is causing some to wonder whether it’s possible to find a political center when hyper-partisanship has turned “compromise” into a dirty word.
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“When we lose guys like Mike Ross, where do you go to make the middle?” said former Blue Dog Rep. Michael Arcuri, who last year lost reelection to Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. “All you have is the two sides as far apart as ever and very little to bridge them.”
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Democrats’ hold on the political middle collapsed last year, and with it most of the Blue Dog Coalition. In the last Congress, there were 54 Blue Dogs. Today, there are 25. Departures have continued since the election: Earlier this year, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., gave up her seat for a post at a think tank and Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., announced that he too will retire at the end of his term.
Their absence has left little constituency for moderate solutions in Congress, said former Blue Dog Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn. “If the American people like what they see with no center, then we’re in deeper trouble than I thought,” said Tanner. “Because the center is where problems are solved, not on either wing.”
Whether Ross’s retirement represents the nadir of a Blue Dog movement poised for resurgence or simply the latest blow to a dying brand of Democratic politics is a subject of disagreement among many of its ex-members.
“I think the Blue Dogs will begin a comeback next election,” predicted former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. “I think those districts where moderate Democrats were defeated by ideological firebrands will be prime areas where independents will have second thoughts.”
One centrist Democrat, former Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., said the debt-limit gridlock has convinced her that Congress needs more moderates to bridge differences between two parties. It’s why she’s considering trying to take back her seat from Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., in 2012.
(PROFILE: Mike Ross's Almanac Profile)
“We do need people like me to be in Congress, so I haven’t completely ruled it out or jumped back in,” Dahlkemper said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is counting on candidates like Dahlkemper. “Strong Democratic candidates who reflect the values of their communities have won these districts in the past—including last year in one of the toughest cycles Democrats have seen—and candidates like this will win again,” said DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson.
But other Democrats insisted the forces pulling both parties apart, among them money from outside groups, media, and gerrymandering, are too formidable to overcome, at least anytime soon. Redistricting will only reinforce increasingly partisan districts, said former Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and make moderation politically dangerous.
“Most seats now are either very Republican or very Democratic, which means you’re hostage to your primaries,” he said. “I’m seeing really the tea party effect impacting a lot of Republicans by virtue of being concerned about their primary.”
This article appears in the July 26, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.