March 1, 2012

The ever-greater divide: Moderates like Snowe a fading species

American voting patterns and political practicalities push the parties toward paralyzing extremes.

By CHARLES BABINGTON The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

Olympia Snowe
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Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, speaks to the media Tuesday outside her office on Capitol Hill after announcing her decision not to run for re-election this fall, citing political gridlock.

The Associated Press

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Mobile Americans exacerbated this trend by settling among like-minded people. Big cities, the West Coast and the Northeast became increasingly Democratic. The South and Great Plains became increasingly Republican. And industrial states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, plus retiree haven Florida, became perennial battlegrounds.

Activists in both parties, meanwhile, took greater control of the nominating process. Some tea partiers in particular vowed to punish anyone who dared compromise with Democrats. Longtime Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah became their first victim, sending a chill throughout the party.

Centrist and independent voters, who paid little attention to primaries, became increasingly frustrated with a partisan-driven Congress unable to reach accord on taxes, spending, Medicare reform and other issues.

"The public wants people to work together, and yet we keep electing people who don't do that," said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican House member from Oklahoma who now writes about Congress. The problem, he said, is that congressional candidates "first have to get through a party primary in which relatively small numbers of people are voting. They tend to be more extreme people."

"Candidates who might be willing to work across the aisle don't get elected because they can't get through the primary," said Edwards, whose forthcoming book is titled "The Parties vs. the People." As examples, he cited Bennett and Mike Castle, the former House Republican who lost the Delaware Senate primary to tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell, who in turn lost a general election that Castle was favored to win.

By some measures, Snowe is the Senate's most liberal Republican and Ben Nelson of Nebraska is its most conservative Democrat. Both are retiring this year, raising serious possibilities they will be replaced by less moderate members of the opposite party, further widening the chamber's partisan divide.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday that ideological differences are fine, provided they don't block the higher goal of reaching accord on pressing problems. "There's nothing wrong with being a liberal or conservative," Graham said. "What's wrong is we can't find common ground on issues that require it."

Some South Carolina Republican groups have lashed out at Graham for not toeing the partisan GOP line on every issue.

Galston says the political parties are somewhat more polarized than the American people. "That mismatch creates a substantial pool, tens of millions of voters, who feel uncomfortable with the polarized state of affairs," he said. This group possibly could become "a major political movement" that would force the major parties to respond.

"If it doesn't," Galston said, "it's not clear to me what disrupts this pattern" of growing polarization.

"To some extent, it's self-perpetuating," he said. Disgusted centrists turn away from politics and leave decisions to extremists on both sides.

Olympia Snowe, Galston said, "is the poster child" for the frustrations of Americans who want the parties to drop their bickering and settle the nation's problems. A year from now, she will be out of office.


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