THE LOST WORLD
For those who have come of age in today’s hyperpartisan Congress—with its near-parliamentary levels of party discipline on floor votes, jagged ideological confrontations, and dominant role for leadership—it’s easy to forget how different the institution looked as recently as the early 1980s, when NJ began measuring members’ votes on a liberal-to-conservative scale.
The first time NJ calculated congressional votes using the scale it employs now, in 1982, the results revealed a Congress that operated in a manner that would be unrecognizable today.
John Danforth, a moderate Republican senator from Missouri, was finishing his first term in 1982. He remembers that soon after he arrived, Russell Long of Louisiana, the venerable Democratic powerhouse who chaired the Senate Finance Committee, gave him a singular piece of advice. “ ‘Don’t ever hold grudges, because your strongest opponent today could be your ally tomorrow,’ ” Danforth, who retired in 1994, recalled in a recent interview.
That advice made sense in the Senate of those years, because both caucuses were much more diverse and unpredictable than they are today. In NJ’s 1982 vote ratings, fully 36 Senate Democrats compiled records at least as conservative as the most liberal Republican, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. From the other direction, 24 Senate Republicans compiled voting records at least as liberal as the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska. Zorinsky, in fact, received a rating exactly as conservative as Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential campaign ignited the modern conservative revival.
The senators with voting records that fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat represented a pool of idiosyncratic, unattached pieces that could be assembled and reassembled in constantly shifting coalitions to pass or block legislation. In such a fluid environment, it virtually defied conceptualization to define a typical Democrat or typical Republican senator.
The Democrats who generated less liberal records than Weicker included New South moderates such as David Boren of Oklahoma and Sam Nunn of Georgia and Old South conservatives such as ancient John Stennis of Mississippi and Harry Byrd of Virginia, as well as coastal neoliberals such as Bill Bradley of New Jersey. The Republicans more liberal than Zorinsky included a phalanx of brainy New England moderates, among them Weicker, William Cohen of Maine, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Robert Stafford of Vermont, a champion of the modern environmental movement. Issues frequently divided the parties along ideological and regional lines. When Helms pushed a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer, Weicker and Danforth helped lead the fight to stop him.
“The overarching point is that the Senate was comprised of 100 individuals who had a loose binding with the respective parties,” says Weicker, who left the GOP in 1990 to win the Connecticut governorship as an independent. “There were more conservative Democrats, more liberal Republicans. You had people who stood on their own two feet.”
In the three decades since, NJ’s vote ratings have tracked the narrowing of that Senate center. By 1994, the second year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, 27 Democrats compiled more conservative NJ voting records than the most liberal Republican, James Jeffords of Vermont (who also later left the GOP to become an independent). Just nine Republicans compiled voting records more liberal than the most conservative Democrat that year—Richard Shelby of Alabama; Shelby, too, later switched parties, joining the GOP. In 1999, with Clinton’s impeachment looming over the chamber and the parties recoiling in the aftermath of the grassroots conservative backlash against the 1997 balanced-budget deal, NJ found no Senate crossover between the parties for the only other time.
By 2002, the second year of George W. Bush’s presidency, some overlap returned, but just two Democrats compiled a more conservative voting record than the most liberal Republican, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee. (Continuing the pattern, Chafee was elected governor as an independent last November.) Just seven Republicans racked up voting records more liberal than the most conservative Democrat, Georgia’s Zell Miller (who never switched parties but did endorse Bush at the 2004 GOP convention).
In 2010, the second year of Obama’s term, this process of separation reached another apex, with no overlap between the ideological scores of senators from the two parties. Taking the long view, the trajectory from Ronald Reagan’s second year to Obama’s is stark: In 1982, 58 senators compiled voting records that fell between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat. By 1994, the number was down to 34. By 2002 (after touching zero in 1999), it stood at just seven. And now it has returned to zero. “Over the years, there is no question that the middle in the Senate has shrunk considerably,” says Lott, now a Washington lobbyist and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.