Last week's primary elections in some hotly contested campaigns for various House and Senate seats yielded results that were extremely important -- but not just for the obvious "who won and who lost" reports that filled up most political Web sites and cable news talk shows.
Most notably, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania lost his bid to run for re-election this fall. The Specter case study is fascinating. Here is a man who has dedicated virtually his entire adult life to public service, all of it as a Republican. Then in April 2009, facing certain defeat in the Republican primary election of 2010 by a candidate who would be supported and financed by the conservative wing of the party, Specter switched his party affiliation and became a Democrat. At the time, he remarked that the "moderates have been driven out of the Republican Party" and said he would take his best shot with the Democrats.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to a sixth term as a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. Specter's primary run as a Democrat this year was challenged by Rep. Joe Sestak, a candidate who actually ran to the left of Specter, basing much of his campaign on the premise that Specter wasn't a true Democrat because he spent all of those years caucusing with the Republicans. In spite of the support of the Democratic Party establishment (or perhaps because of it?), Specter was beaten by eight points and his career is now over.
So in the span of just one year, a highly respected man who spent 44 years in elected office was essentially bounced out of one major political party for being too liberal and rejected by the other one because he was too conservative.
The other interesting case study from last week's election results took place in Kentucky. In the Republican Party's Senate primary there, Rand Paul -- the son of Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who made an intriguing run for the presidency in 2008 -- cruised to a 24-point win over the candidate preferred by the Republican Party establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Paul was one of the most visible "Tea Party" candidates on the ballot last week and even went out of his way in his acceptance speech to connect his candidacy in this fall's general election to the ambitions and platform of the Tea Party.
So in a state that is a reliable Republican hotbed, the candidate selected and financially supported by the Republican Party -- and personally endorsed by the most powerful Republican in Washington -- was trounced in the primary by a candidate who ran to the right of him.
The primary narrative in the media coverage of these two election results was along the lines of "Voters Deal Blow to Incumbents" -- as if to say that the real message here was that voters are frustrated with government and the economy, so they want to toss out the bums. To be sure, the anti-incumbent sentiment is strong this year, as it was in 2008 and 2006 as well. That definitely is a bad starting point for anyone in the House or Senate who is running for re-election.
But in my view, there is a bigger theme at play right now, one that has the potential of leading to some real earthquakes for our representative democracy in this generation. The fact is that we continue to see an erosion of "the middle" in Congress and there is no greater dying breed among elected officials than the moderate in Washington.
Want a great metaphor for this development in our political landscape? Look to Arkansas, a conservative-leaning state that produced the last Democrat in the White House, former Arkansas Governor and former President Bill Clinton. There, Sen. Blanche Lincoln -- a Democrat who has been slammed by conservatives for supporting the health care bill and slammed by liberals for opposing cap and trade -- was unable to obtain more than 50% of the vote last week and is now headed for a run-off vote against the Lt. Gov. of Arkansas. As the New York Times wrote about Sen. Lincoln, "when overheated political passions batter incumbents, being in the middle gets you hit from both sides."
Here's the deal. We are now reaping the crops of political apathy and voter indifference that were touched off in the post-Watergate era, fueled by the widening of the government/citizen gap in the post-Reagan years, and lulled to sleep during the sustained economic growth of the Clinton years. The result is a wide swath of Americans who were made cynical about politics by government corruption, became disaffected when they saw it working for one class of Americans and not others, then just figured it wasn't worth their time to bother anyway.
These socio-political developments have produced a body politic that consists of one coalition of voters who will enthusiastically support candidates on one end of the spectrum and another coalition who will turn out for candidates on the other end of the spectrum. The candidates who win elections are the ones who can most effectively persuade enough of the voters with no intrinsic affinity in either direction to give 'em a shot in office. Those "middle" voters swing elections in America -- not some of the time, but all of the time -- and yet, once in office, those elected officials drift right back to their natural bases.
The reason all of this matters is that we will never achieve a truly collegial, bi-partisan atmosphere in our government as long as our elected officials are forced to take up residence in one camp or the other in order to retain their political careers. We'll never achieve the Jeffersonian goal of open-minded, liberal political debate in our government as long as our elected officials risk their reputations by daring to admit that the other camp might have a good point on this bill or that idea. And we'll never achieve Lincoln's more perfect union as long as political discourse continues to take place through the prism of "good guys" and "bad guys" depending on party affiliation, as opposed to what makes good sense for the republic.
Does this weaken the country or just make for interesting political science? We'll find out soon enough.
There was a time when being in the middle in Washington meant that you could speak to everyone and find common ground; in contemporary American politics, it means you're an endangered species.