Commentary: Where Have All the Centrists Gone?

Watching the debate over now-stalled economic stimulus legislation was a little like watching human evolution in reverse: Both parties seemed to regress back to their Neanderthal roots.

Republicans, who began 2001 determined to retool their message into a more user-friendly "compassionate conservatism," became the Party of Big Business again. They made their last stand of the year on alternative-minimum-tax relief for the likes of General Electric (GE ) and IBM (IBM ).

Democrats came off equally poorly as the party of liberal interest groups and government spending. No new tax cuts, not even a teeny one, for anybody who isn't certifiably middle-class, they cried. After a decade of Clintonian efforts to create a "New Democrat" party attractive to entrepreneurs and fiscally moderate independents, leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) have returned to their labor-populist, anti-corporate roots.

Despite the national pulling-together after September 11, the two parties are more polarized on spending and taxes than at any time since the Reagan years. "There is nothing that divides our parties more, philosophically, than economic policy," says Daschle. Frets Representative Amos Houghton (R-N.Y.), a leader of the moderate Main Street Republicans: "We're reverting back to our aboriginal state.

It's a lousy way to run a country."

That divide could foreshadow a nasty, unproductive year in Washington as public attention shifts from the war on terrorism to recession and recovery. Among the likely hot spots: business tax cuts, regulatory relief, Social Security privatization, and a prescription-drug benefit for seniors. In each case, Democrats will accuse Republicans of trying to pay back their corporate patrons, while the GOP will accuse the Dems of being in the pocket of unions, trial lawyers, and radical environmentalists. "To compromise means to give away what their biggest supporters want," says Charles Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's always easier to say, `I went down fighting for you."'

This doesn't mean a complete lack of progress. Both parties need to chalk up some accomplishments in an election year. Election reform is headed for passage [page 43], and trade liberalization legislation is likely to win final approval soon. Compromise also is likely on two stalled proposals--a Patients' Bill of Rights and energy legislation--if President Bush is willing to use some of his accumulated political capital.

Still, with Democrats holding a one-vote edge in the Senate and Republicans protecting a five-seat cushion in the House, hyperpartisanship could be the order of the day. And that will only accelerate public discontent. Already, "the biggest party in the country is really `No Party,"' concedes Democratic pollster Mark Penn. Swing voters overwhelmingly want moderate solutions to national problems, and by three-to-one would be more inclined to support centrist candidates, according to a recent Penn poll.

So why the disconnect between independent-minded Americans and Capitol Hill? For one thing, the political extremes are disproportionately represented. The reason: Nearly 90% of House districts are heavily weighted toward one party or the other, and primary elections are dominated by true believers. That leaves about 40 moderate Democrats and a dozen GOP centrists in competitive districts holding the balance of power. But most of the centrists have been intimidated into submission by their parties' ideological hierarchies.

Unless Bush moves the domestic agenda to the center, moderates will keep fading. Although lawmakers such as Senators Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) continue to search for consensus solutions to divisive issues, there are too few heavyweights to counteract the centrifugal force that's pulling Washington toward the extremes.

By Richard S. Dunham

With Lorraine Woellert and Alexandra Starr in Washington

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