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The Center Falls Apart

Where Have You Gone, Mac Mathias? Moderates of both political parties are rapidly headed for extinction.

The late Maryland Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias was an iconic liberal Republican, a political species that has essentially vanished from the current landscape along with moderates of almost every stripe.(U.S. Congress)

photo of Major Garrett
February 25, 2011

Not that long ago, Washington used to be a place full of individual, and individualistic, lawmakers who were both capable and willing to defy party labels and the party orthodoxy to make things happen. That was also a world, paradoxically, where party infrastructure mattered more; a place and time when local, state, and national party machinery exerted at least some influence over candidate selection, fundraising, endorsements, and field operations. The irony is that in that era of greater party influence, lawmakers acted less predictably and with less partisan zeal.

National Journal's vote ratings in 1982 found, to cite just one example, 60 senators who could credibly be described as operating in the ideological middle. Back then, 36 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted in ways that put them between the most liberal Senate Republican, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, and the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska. The number of those in the broad middle in the House was 344. The ideological poles were defined by liberal Republican Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island and conservative Democrat Larry McDonald of Georgia.

This period covers part of the Senate career Maryland Republican Charles "Mac" Mathias, a classic example of a politician whose career path was managed by his party but whose voting decisions frequently ignored--often flagrantly so--party wishes. Mathias, who had been serving in the House since 1961, was elected in 1968 after Maryland GOP bosses selected him as the Senate candidate over Rep. Rogers Morton to challenge incumbent Daniel Brewster. Mathias won on a platform of reducing U.S. bombing raids in North Vietnam (Brewster supported more bombing) and fighting urban blight and racial discrimination. He infuriated the Nixon White House by opposing many of its initiatives.

 

He warned in 1976 of the rise of "fringe" GOP conservatism, and when Republicans won control of the Senate in 1980 he did not win the coveted chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee but was stuck with the unglamorous Rules Committee--a sign that even in the less partisan 1980s when NJ began compiling this voting data, wayward party members were still punished (they just tended not to conform).

In the most recent Congress, not one senator fell into this middle category. In the 111th Congress, not one Republican fell into the ideological spectrum between the most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and the most liberal Republican, George Voinovich of Ohio. Neither did any Democrat. In the House, the number of in-betweeners fell to seven (even after Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “revolution,” the House number had been 226).

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., arrived in Washington in 1990 after winning Schneider’s House seat (she lost a 1990 bid to replace Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell). Reed said redistricting has dramatically reduced the number of swing districts in the House, thereby deepening party divisions. But what about the Senate, where Reed arrived after winning his open-seat race in 1996?

Reed said the demise of institutional party power is one cause. Another, he said, is the rise of politicians as their own wholly owned political corporations, where congressmen and senators exert much more control over fundraising, consulting, polling, and get-out-the-vote operations than ever before. The paradox, Reed said, is that as lawmakers have been more independent of party influence, pressure, and persuasion, they’ve become more reliably—some congressional analysts would say robotically—partisan. Reed also blamed a generational shift away from a large number of lawmakers who, as many had in 1982, shared experience in the U.S. military in either World War II or the Korean conflict.

"There are less and less common experiences that we share,” Reed told National Journal. “It’s also the decline, institutionally, of parties. And it’s not just Republican, it’s the Democratic Party. In 1982, party leaders were picking presidents. They were picking candidates. That doesn’t happen at all today. If you have sufficient resources, then you can go ahead. And the party no longer controls those resources. In the old days, parties controlled campaign workers, influenced endorsements, provided money for fliers and yard signs. Who does yard signs anymore?”

By way of comparison, lawmakers on average spent $211,000 in 1982 on House races and $1.7 million on Senate races, according to the Congressional Research Service. Those figures translate to $462,925 and $3,751,673 in 2009 dollars. In this last election cycle, the average House race cost $1.09 million and the average Senate race cost $8.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

And those resources, raised by lawmakers who oversee their political operations with an intensity and independence unimaginable in 1982, also operate with a degree of partisan predictability that would have been equally unimaginable when National Journal first began tabulating where lawmakers fell on the ideological spectrum and how frequently they were willing and able to defy labels and orthodoxy. One price of modern legislative politics appears to be flexibility, and what donors seem to value more than nearly anything else is predictability.

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