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The moderate middle is disappearing from Congress. Evan Bayh is just the latest senator to forgo a re-election bid, joining a growing line of pragmatic, find-a-way politicians who are abandoning Washington. Still here: ever-more-polarized colleagues locked in gridlock — exactly what voters say they don’t like about politics in the nation’s capital.
Politics runs in cycles, and the Senate has seen flights of self-styled centrists before. In 1996, for example, 10 senators who could boast strong bipartisan credentials chose to retire rather than re-up. Many of them complained how lonely a place the middle ground of American politics had become. But to some, the center has become even lonelier.
More than their feelings are at stake. The moderates in the middle are the ones who tend to make deals and sometimes resolve standoffs blocking decisions that affect programs — not to mention taxes — that touch virtually every American.
Former Sen. William Cohen says what’s happening now is a continuation of the “hollowing out of the middle.” An article he wrote when he left his Senate seat in 1996, lamenting partisan gridlock, could just as easily be reprinted now, subbing his name for that of Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who announced on Monday he won’t run again.
“There is this sort of purging in both parties,” Cohen said in an interview. “They insist on moving to the left or moving to the right, and I think you’re seeing over the years the moderates have disappeared and continue to disappear.”
The few left in the middle can gain outsized power to decide the fate of closely fought issues. But that comes at a price more and more of them say is too high: crushing pressure to conform, shrill media barbs and the increased fight for cash to shape one’s own campaign narrative.
“I simply reached a conclusion that I could get more done to help my state and the American people by doing something in the private sector,” said Bayh, the two-term senator and former governor, on ABC’s Good Morning America on Tuesday. “Real accomplishments in a real way.”
That’s an extraordinary statement on the anniversary of the $787 billion stimulus package that was supposed to energize the economy. Rather than heed President Barack Obama‘s appeal for pragmatism, Congress is losing its value as a problem-solver and becoming more unworkable, according to Bayh.
Polls say voters hate that about national politics. Lawmakers profess to dislike the polarization, too, but they still engage in it, on the House or Senate floor, in private meetings, or both. And on the campaign trail, the truth is there’s cash to be made by taking sides and, in effect, becoming a dependable brand.
“If you’re on either fringe of the party, you have an easier time raising money,” said one who would know, Sen. Arlen Specter, who left the GOP for the Democrats when he found he could not win a Pennsylvania Republican primary. “I have to work a lot harder than somebody who has an ideological base.”
Calling from a fundraising swing through California, Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee, Specter said sticking around awhile — three decades in his case — can produce a brand of independence he is hoping fits the public’s populist streak.
“I think the independents are going to be in a position to pick the winners and losers,” he said.
And moderates? An endangered species?
Moderates, said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, are “going the way of the dinosaur.”
“Soon we’re going be able to go to museums to the see the skeletons of the centrists and learn about what they were,” West said.
It could be argued that fresh blood may be a good thing for an institution many view as broken.
But some fresh faces are turning down the chance to run, even after being asked by the president.
In Illinois, a would-be strong candidate, Lisa Madigan, spurned Obama’s pressure to run. That could reflect Obama’s lack of pull — one year into office — but it also says something about the desirability of serving on Capitol Hill given the public’s disdain for Congress.
The lament of partisan gridlock is a well-worn element of lawmakers’ farewell speeches. Former Republican Senate leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a physician, lectured his colleagues about it on the way out the door in 2006. Former Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi appeared with former Democratic President Bill Clinton and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich earlier this year to urge the parties to get along.
But tellingly, no Republicans were present in the Senate when Democrat Paul Kirk, turning over the seat held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy to Republican Scott Brown earlier this month, spoke about the lack of comity in the chamber.
Not so long ago, Senate seats were among the most sought-after positions in the land. They meant power and prestige, some posturing but also some significant problem-solving.
Now, many believe the $174,000 salary just isn’t worth it.
Besides the personal costs — being a lawmaker means being screamed at during summer town hall meetings and vilified around the clock in multimedia fashion — the more polarized Congress becomes, the less its members can accomplish.
There’s “too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving” on Capitol Hill, Bayh said as he announced his retirement. “I do not love Congress.”
Veteran Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Bayh could do more to change that by staying.
“I don’t understand how you make things better from the outside. I share the frustration, but I would have hoped he would have stayed around.”
Plenty of lawmakers are still hoping to do that. But a long and bipartisan list of Senate leaders who have chosen to fight for re-election — from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to California Democrat Barbara Boxer and Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s nominee for president last year — are feeling the anti-incumbent squeeze.
Others are saying the congressional life is simply not worth it, and the list of casualties is bipartisan.
Bayh and veteran Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., are choosing to retire. So is Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and other GOP House members from Michigan, Indiana, Arkansas and Arizona have announced retirements.
Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, chose not to run for a legacy seat in Delaware. No Kennedys, let alone political heavyweights of any sort, ran for the Ted Kennedy‘s seat in Massachusetts.
AP Political Writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.