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Politics Daily: Can centrists survive 2010?

So far, 2010 has been an eventful, and sometimes perilous year for independent-minded politicians — and would-be party kingmakers.
Image: Charlie Crist Announces He Will Run For Senate As Independent
Supporters hold signs during Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's rally to announce his independent bid for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
/ Source: Politics Daily

So far, 2010 has been an eventful, and sometimes perilous year for independent-minded politicians — and would-be party kingmakers. This dual lesson keeps being relearned in primary after primary, all over the country, and in both parties.

The evidence ranges from the unhorsing of Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah to the rejection — first within the Republican Party then in the Democratic Party — of iconoclastic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. The rebuff of Rep. Artur Davis in his bid for governor of Alabama is part of this story. So is the intraparty knife fight that Sen. Blanche Lincoln barely weathered in Arkansas, not to mention the roiling politics of Florida, where a popular pol bolted from his political party — even while serving as governor of a large and influential state.

"It's an unpredictable year in America, we know that," the Democratic Party chairman in Washington state, Dwight Pelz, said recently. It's a weird year, too, which Pelz inadvertently illustrated in his next breath. Discussing the decision by Republican Dino Rossi to run against Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, Pelz leveled this year's kiss-of-death charge against the Republican challenger: "Rossi is the establishment Republican candidate, he is the hand-picked candidate of Washington, D.C."

As if anticipating that line of attack, Rossi has already tapped the services of conservative political consultant Pat Shortridge, an adviser to Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, the man who chased Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party. With all due respect to former Speaker Tip O'Neill, all politics is national now, but that may not be enough to guarantee that Rossi will even be the GOP nominee. He faces a spirited challenge from Sarah Palin-backed Tea Party favorite Clint Didier, a farmer and former Washington Redskin.

"We can't leave this to the so-called elites," Didier told an enthusiastic crowd at the state Republican convention in Vancouver, Wash., this weekend. "It's our country. We have to fight for it!"

Testing Republican Loyalties
This is what party elders face all over the country this year. Perhaps it is ungracious to remind Sen. John Cornyn that he was for the Charlie Crist-for-Senate gambit before he was against it. Covetous of GOP Senate seats with which to counterbalance a Democratic presidential administration, the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee — headed by Cornyn — threw its weight behind Gov. Crist's senatorial candidacy in May 2009, even though a substantive Republican candidate was already in the race in the person of Marco Rubio.

Part of the anti-Crist sentiment in Florida stemmed from resentment that D.C. kingmakers were meddling in Sunshine State politics. A similar dynamic was at play in Kentucky, where an attractive and earnest GOP establishment candidate was sent packing by Rand Paul, a grassroots conservative with a famous surname and a fiery message. Some Kentuckians took umbrage at the machinations of Sen. Mitch McConnell in easing Jim Bunning into retirement and trying to grease the skids for that earnest candidate, a young man named Trey Grayson.

In both Florida and Kentucky, however, the truly galvanizing factor is the certitude of the conservative base, including Tea Party types, that Charlie Crist and Trey Grayson would demonstrate less fealty to conservative orthodoxy in Washington than Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. The assumption is safe enough, but it leaves out of the equation the question of electability in November.

Nevada Republicans, in one of the most curious primary results of 2010, voted in inverse order for the three candidates with the strongest chance of defeating Harry Reid in November. The seemingly strongest candidate, Danny Tarkanian, ran third. Second was Sue Lowden, an attractive and known quantity in the state's GOP establishment. The nomination went to Sharron Angle, a result which just may have offered Harry Reid a reprieve.

Similar disturbances in the Force have erupted all over the electoral map this year — in both political parties. Robert Bennett of Utah was a dependable conservative vote in the Senate, and yet managed to come in third at a Republican Party convention taken over by Tea Partiers. In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln bested Bill Halter in last Tuesday's run-off, but a question remains how much Halter and his labor backers took out of Lincoln as she prepares to face well-rested and well-financed Republican John Boozman in November.

The commentariat has been full of observations about what this all means, analysis that has tended to illustrate the problem, not a solution: some liberals have been quick to label Republican base voters as intolerant, perhaps because it was easier than facing up to the powerful potion of purity being brewed up by their own party's ideologues. But it's fair to ask: What is going on this year?

For starters, anti-incumbent fervor is no joke. That's to be expected in an election year in which millions of Americans owe the bank more on their home than their house is worth and where the unemployment rate is stuck around 10 percent -- with another 7 percent to 10 percent either underemployed or who have simply quit looking for work. That adds up to a perilous environment for career politicians. Anti-Washington rhetoric is flying over the airwaves, neither major party is popular, and anti-Congress sentiment is at historic highs. This worries good-government types, but frustration is an understandable response to financial hardship, especially when Congress and the administration are enacting sweeping and expensive legislation.

"This anti-incumbent sentiment is a tsunami that isn't going away," conservative Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah declared — suggesting in the next breath that he may challenge Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012 in the Republican primaries.

The second factor is a generation-long process of political polarization that has taken place in this country. Polarization is an over-used term that is sometimes employed to described the coarsened political discourse that characterizes our times. But that phenomenon is really a symptom of what's happening. Strictly speaking, what political scientists have in mind when they talk about polarization is the separation of like-minded Americans into coherent political camps. And although they decry its results now, political scientists have been demanding just such a thing since the middle of the 20th century. These good-government types thought it would make things better. They don't appear to have accounted for all contingencies.

'Responsible' Political Parties
The Founders of our republic, most especially George Washington, mistrusted political parties believing — rightly, as it happens — that they would encourage divisiveness and factionalism. President Washington himself put it quite eloquently: "We must drive far away the demon of party spirit and local reproach."

Alas, the U.S. Constitution itself was a polarizing document. For starters, it merely deferred the explosive issue of slavery, while creating all kinds of other splintering with its other contortions. Initially, it was embraced by urban mercantilists, and decried by rural farmers. And so did our union begin, uneasily. One Framer, Benjamin Franklin, was intimately familiar with the concept of polarization — Franklin had actually discovered the concept of electrical polarity — and there is some evidence that Franklin realized that the scientific principle in which charged particles repel each other to opposite poles could apply to human beings as well. As the Constitution that forged a nation was being published in Philadelphia he took note of its flaws in a letter to his sister, adding: "We have, however, done our best, and it must take its chance."

And so we did — except for times like this. Stanford political scientist David W. Brady has established persuasively that we've been here before, and come out of it. At the turn of the 20th century, and in the 1930s, Americans were deeply polarized as well. The trouble with this period of polarization is that it appears structural, not temporary, because some of the brakes on the engines of extremism have eroded away.

In 1950, a group of prominent political scientists produced a report to the American Political Science Association titled "Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System." This paper advocated changes ranging from the parties demanding that candidates run on "a national program" to altering the seniority system in Congress. The political scientists decried the regional factionalism that produced a system in which, for instance, Southern Democrats were more conservative than Northern Republicans. In the absence of cohesive ideological political parties, governing was too ad-hoc — and elections didn't render clear verdicts on the direction the voting public wanted the government to take.

In some ways, the system the political scientists envisioned is now with us, although it certainly didn't occur the way the APSA report envisioned. In the last 60 years, candidates for office have become even more untethered from their party's national leadership; nonetheless, an ideological cohesiveness has emerged. Very few of today's conservatives are Democrats. Liberals are increasingly unwelcome in the Republican Party. The nation has entered a period dubbed by political scholars Elaine Kamarck and William Galston as "The Great Sorting Out."

The early results are mixed. Yes, voters certainly have a clearer view of where the two parties stand — and what they will be getting from candidates with an R or a D next to their names. That's the good news. The bad news is that this same dynamic — the one Ben Franklin discovered — has pulled the Democratic Party much further to the left than most Americans would like and pulled Republicans so far to the right many old-time Republicans can't recognize it.

This dynamic helps fuel incivility on the cable TV and the Internet, creates barriers to compromise in Congress, and puts moderates in peril in their own parties. In short, it leads to gridlock. "The irony," says political consultant Mark McKinnon, "is that while voters are demanding more pragmatic centrism, the political body is creating more partisanship and extremism."

The failures of Artur Davis and Arlen Specter, the choice made by Joe Lieberman, and the possible fate of Charlie Crist seem to raise this question: Is it time, once again, for a third party?