Election opens up a gaping divide

Demise of moderates as power shifts right

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / November 6, 2010

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WASHINGTON — This year’s tumultuous midterm election cycle cut deeply into the ranks of moderates on Capitol Hill, helping usher in a Congress that scholars say could produce the most partisan voting pattern since the Civil War era. The lack of moderate voices has led to fears that lawmakers will be deadlocked over an array of issues, even though a large swath of voters tell pollsters they want compromise — and progress.

“It will be increasingly difficult because of the divided nature of Congress and the extreme polarization that exists between the two parties,’’ said Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, a leading moderate Democrat who did not seek reelection. “There is also a complete lack of tolerance for any deviation from party orthodoxy on both sides.’’

Bayh hopes that some areas of common ground can still be salvaged, but the fate of his own seat demonstrates the challenges ahead. Bayh is retiring because of the bitter partisan atmosphere and will be replaced by Dan Coats, a Republican who promised voters he would not “sing ‘Kumbaya’ across the aisle.’’

Researchers who track American elections say Tuesday’s was notable not because the country swung radically to the right, but rather because it accelerated a 30-year trend in American politics: the widening ideological gulf between Democrats and Republicans.

“This could be the most polarized Congress ever elected,’’ said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University who wrote “The Disappearing Center,’’ which charts how the two political parties and their most active supporters have gradually moved to the extremes. “The few remaining moderates are going to be under pressure to toe the line. They are all afraid.’’

The Democratic caucus will be decidedly more liberal — of the 54 conservative “Blue Dog’’ Democrats in the House, only half survived Election Day. Some of the comparatively few Republicans who sought compromises with Democrats on issues such as health care, including Senator Robert Bennett of Utah and Representative Michael Castle of Delaware, were vanquished in primary battles by more conservative candidates.

Moderates are often the most vulnerable because they face challenges from both parties, and the Tea Party movement ensured more incumbents had a firmly conservative rival this year.

Although 78 percent of voters surveyed in a March poll saw elected officials’ unwillingness to compromise as “a major problem,’’ the distance between self-identified Democrats and Republicans on the issues is greater than it has been in recent decades, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center and the author of a 2004 study, “Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized.’’

“The Republican Party is more conservative than it was 10 years ago, and the Democratic party is more liberal than it was 10 years ago,’’ said Keeter.

Nolan McCarty, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, has examined the voting records of every member of Congress since the 1800s. He created a “Polarization Index’’ that reflects how often members of the two parties agreed on major issues. His index shows that the parties agree less now on the issues than they did in the era after the Civil War.

“You can go down the list of things where there was not a single Republican vote,’’ McCarty said. “Even after the Civil War, there were some bipartisan issues, like tariffs and inflationary monetary policy.’’

McCarty says one reason for the change is rising income inequality. During times of relative equality — the 1940s through the 1960s — politicians played to the middle class, regardless of their party, and had significant overlap in their ideas. But starting in the 1970s, the nation began to divide much more starkly into rich and poor.

The Democratic Party catered more to lower-income people and minorities who wanted more government services, even if that meant higher taxes. Meanwhile, the Republican Party catered more to wealthier people, including a newly emerging class of entrepreneurs and business owners, who wanted less government intervention and lower taxes, even if it meant fewer services, he said.

But others see different reasons for the rift and are more optimistic about overcoming it.

Senator Ron Wyden, a liberal Democrat from Oregon who won reelection Tuesday after touting his bipartisan efforts, blamed special interests for pushing lawmakers into extreme positions that average Americans don’t want.

“There is no question that there are much more powerful forces that get up every single morning and say to themselves, ‘We want to deep-six these efforts to find common ground,’ ’’ he said. “But I think the hand of those who want to find common ground is potentially stronger now, because it is not going to be possible for either side to go to voters and say, ‘We achieved our objective by stopping everything.’ ’’

Wyden sees fruitful areas of cooperation, citing a tax-reform bill that he has worked on with Judd Gregg, the retiring New Hampshire Republican senator, that would reduce the corporate tax rate but also take away incentives for sending jobs overseas. He also said the two parties could work together to speed up federal waivers that allow states to create more choice for people buying health insurance under the new health care law.

Jim Matheson, Democrat of Utah, a leader of the Blue Dogs in the House, said the two sides should work on creating jobs. He said he believes polarization has been spurred by the fact that small number of ideologues in both parties control the nomination process.

Some studies suggest that, as the two parties pull farther apart, more Americans are identifying as independents, feeling that neither party truly represents them. During the 2008 and 2010 elections, about 37 percent of American voters described themselves as independents, Keeter said.

Mark Baldassare, research director of the Public Policy Institute of California, said the shifting preferences of those swing voters help explain why Democrats won in 2008 but Republicans won Tuesday.

Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who was elected in January, is viewed as the first beneficiary of the Tea Party movement but took a number of moderate positions this year, including support for a financial-regulation bill. He told reporters Thursday that he had voted with Democrats nearly one-third of the time but “they’ve voted with me zero. So it’s a two-way street.’’

Many see the partisan tilt in this election as bad news for Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, two moderate Republicans from Maine, a state that elected a more conservative governor and Legislature.

In a statement to the Globe, Snowe, who is up for reelection in 2012, said that “Congress must focus like a laser’’ on tax and regulatory policies that would foster economic growth and spur job creation, starting with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, which will raise taxes across the board in January. She did not address the issue of bipartisan efforts.

But Collins, who is up for reelection in 2014, pledged to keep working with all parties, including newly elected moderate Republicans.

“The solution is more balance in Washington,’’ she said.

Farah Stockman can be reached at