Moderates are a dying breed on Capitol Hill. It's a reality that bodes poorly for the prospect of easing the gridlock that has seized Congress in recent years.
The Republican Party isn't the only one losing its moderates. The ranks of moderate Democrats in Congress have shrunk considerably in recent years, too. The result of whittling from both sides is a dwindling middle that could intensify political polarization that is already on the rise.
The first session of the 113th Congress was historically unproductive, continuing a trend in recent years of more logjams and fewer bills being passed. A large part of the story has to do with an often unruly House GOP Conference with few moderates and many conservatives who have refused to budge from their positions in legislative showdown after legislative showdown.
At the same time, moderate Democrats have been running for the exits during the last two cycles. The latest to step down is Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), who announced Wednesday that he would retire after nine terms.
McIntyre is a Blue Dog Democrat who often broke ranks with his party, most notably on the federal health-care law, which he opposed in 2010. He sits in the third most conservative district held by a Democrat and survived the 2012 election by the skin of his teeth, outpacing Republican David Rouzer by a slimmer margin (about 700 votes) than any other incumbent that year.
McIntyre's far from the only moderate who is headed for the exits or has already left. Of the seven most conservative House Democrats as judged by National Journal's 2012 Vote Ratings, two retired in 2012 (Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Mike Ross of Arkansas), two lost in primaries (Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania and Tim Holden of Pennsylvania), and two are stepping down after this year (McIntyre and Jim Matheson of Utah).
The Blue Dog Coalition that boasted 54 members in the 111th Congress now counts just 15 members on its team.
Part of it has to do with redistricting. McIntyre, for example, was drawn into a tougher district by Republicans. And now-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) -- who was also among the seven most conservative House Democrats in NJ's 2012 ratings -- was spurred to run for the Senate last year in part by changes in his own district that made it more conservative.
The 2010 wave election in which Republicans picked up 63 seats is also largely responsible for this dynamic. It was in that election that many centrist Democrats were swept from office and many cast-iron conservative Republicans joined Congress.
So what does it all mean? A couple of things.
One potential result is a Congress that looks even more polarized than it does now. With fewer lawmakers interested in working with the other side, the path to passing broad legislation that both parties can agree to will grow ever more difficult.
Secondly, Democratic departures have left the party's long-shot hopes of taking back the House in even worse condition. In the districts of McIntyre and Matheson, for example, Republicans are practically shoo-ins now. The only thing that would have made for competitive races in either place was the well-defined reputations of the incumbents. Democratic newcomers will find the going much tougher for them.
Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to win back the majority at a time when they are playing plenty of defense and the political climate has turned sharply against President Obama and his party. They can hardly afford to give Republicans more sure-bet pickups.
The gray area that once served as fertile territory for deal-making in Congress is almost nonexistent these days. Before long, it may just disappear completely.
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