Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

May 20, 2012

George Weeks: Centrists fading factor in politics

The shrinking center in American politics is evident in both parties but is especially prominent of late in the increasingly ideologically divided GOP.

This was underscored this month by the Indiana primary defeat of longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, a reasonable fellow noted for promoting compromise, and the announced retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a consensus-builder and one of a dwindling band of New England moderates.

Said Lugar: "Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. "¦They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise." Commenting on the decline of moderates, Snowe observed recently that the trend may have begun as early as 1996. She said, "Think about how different it has become since then. The people either departing by retirement or through defeat--and especially in the last few elections--have been centrists." In a National Journal interview, Snowe, noting a Journal analysis by Ronald Brownstein, said, "in 1982, 58 senators came between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican, and now there is no one.

"That speaks to the divisions that have occurred in the country. Everything's defined by the MSNBC or Fox News prism." That is to say, the liberal and conservative perspectives.

One of the last prominent GOP moderates in Michigan, 1969-82 Gov. William G. Milliken, said of Lugar and Snowe, "It is a really sad thing to see the decline of the reasonable side of the Republican Party that doesn't always see Democrats as the enemy." He said, however, that he was encouraged in Michigan to see that Gov. Rick Snyder has been able to avoid some of the "bitter disputes" that some other new Republican governors have had with Democrats and their allies.

During his 14 years in office, Milliken formed alliances with Democrats on environmental, transportation and other issues.

At the national level during the early 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson cut deals with a formidable congressional alliance of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans. More moderate-to-liberal Republicans were concentrated in the Northeast and along the West Coast.

Of late, notes Brownstein, "the range of opinion has narrowed in both parties but especially in the GOP, where conservatives exert much greater influence than liberals do among Democrats." (On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that so far in this election cycle, conservative interest groups have spent $20 million promoting their causes, outspending liberal groups by about 4-to1.) Brownstein said that Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin, a recent book on decline of moderate Republicans, says that GOP conservatives push ideology to the point "that they can't sell their program anymore" on issues such as transforming Medicare.

Brownstein said that, "Democrats haven't faced as great an imbalance, but they could if the ranks of their congressional centrists diminish further."

The Michigan congressional delegation has become less centrist in recent years. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, a centrist in his party, was replaced upon his retirement by Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, a tea party favorite who has an agenda with some aspects that play well Up North regardless of ideology.

According to a Club for Growth report regarding Michigan congressmen on "Just How Tea Party Are They?" Benishek scored a 72 percent record on the analysis of actions to trim spending and the size of government, and foster growth.

Two southwest Michigan districts not long ago were represented by moderate Republicans, Joe Schwarz of Battle Creek and Vern Ehlers of Grand Rapids. Conservative Republicans now reign in both districts.

The Club for Growth report, as noted by the Detroit News, said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, who replaced Ehlers, was one of only three out of 87 conservatives in Congress to score 100 percent. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who has the seat once held by Schwarz, scored 86 percent.

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, who replaced fellow conservative Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, now running for the nomination to challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow, scored 90 percent.

Leader on two fronts Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan's longest serving U.S. senator, has been prominent on the national scene in recent years as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has led Capitol Hill's focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In early May, Levin was in Kabul, Afghanistan, with President Barak Obama to witness the signing ceremony of an historic partnership with the nation where the United States has fought for a decade. (Widely described as America's longest war but not so if counting the undeclared portions of the Vietnam war that took U.S. lives.) Levin also has been a headliner of late as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He spoke recently on the Senate floor about high oil prices and other excesses in commodity markets.

Last week, Levin ripped CEO Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, which disclosed a $2 billion loss, saying on NBC "This was not a risk-reducing activity they were engaged in. They increased their risk."

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