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The Strange Death Of The Blue Elephants

May 25, 2012

credit: dechmm

I understand why Senate Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell fought like hell to unite his caucus against Pres. Barack Obama and the Democratic agenda in 2009-10.  Senate Republicans were, from their perspective, the last line of defense against a set of progressive proposals that rivaled the Great Society (1965-66) and the New Deal (1933-34) in their breadth and depth.

And it worked.  Unprecedented use of delaying tactics resulted in hundreds of House-passed bills never coming up for a vote in the Senate before the session ended.

What I don’t understand is the strangely passive behavior of Republican moderates that has led to their near-total demise—as well as the end of the bipartisan culture in Washington that they claim to venerate.

Return with me to January 2009.  Across the moderate Republican heartland—an 18 state swath stretching from Maine to Virginia, continuing north of the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi—only 6 Republican Senators remain when the 111th Congress convenes:  Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (ME), Judd Gregg (NH), Arlen Specter (PA), George Voinovich (OH) and Richard Lugar (IN).

The nation’s economy is in freefall, and for many, the newly elected Democratic president’s distinguishing political characteristic is his willingness to work across party lines.  (By contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is arguably the toughest, savviest, most partisan party leader since Lyndon Johnson ran the Senate.)  It’s not just Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric either.  Both as an state senator in Illinois, and as a freshman senator in Congress, Obama repeatedly demonstrated his ability to craft bipartisan solutions to difficult problems.

He did so again almost immediately as president, winning passage of the Recovery Act with the support of Collins, Snowe and Specter—in exchange for cutting the size of the stimulus bill by about $100 billion, and increasing the percentage of the bill devoted to tax cuts.

If Collins, Snowe, Gregg (a former governor), Specter, Voinovich (also a former governor), and Lugar (former Indianapolis mayor) had formed an alliance—call it the “Blue Elephant” caucus—they could have wielded significant influence in passing literally hundreds of bills that would have 1) ended the Great Recession more quickly, 2) contained thousands of moderate, market-oriented, Republican amendments (as well as ones that directly benefited their own constituents and supporters), and 3) won them recognition and increased support from voters in their own states.

Together, they could wield enough power to win concessions from their own party leadership—just as Blue Dog Democrats have done over the past 30 years.  They could have seized the moment to create a defining image of moderate Republicanism that would rally like-minded politicians and voters to their standard.  Instead, they generally fell in line with McConnell’s “massive resistance” strategy.

The result for the Republican Party overall?  A painfully slow economic recovery which helped fuel a resurgence of the extremist wing of the Republican Party, sweeping scores of Tea Party candidates into office during the midterm elections.

The result for the Blue Elephants?  Specter (in a craven and clumsily orchestrated way) switched parties and lost re-election in 2010.  Voinovich decided not to run for re-election that year, as did Gregg (who had been offered a seat in Obama’s cabinet).  Snowe announced in February that she is retiring at the end of the year, while Lugar lost a primary to a more conservative challenger earlier this month.  So much for the “Blue Elephants”.

One of the basic assumptions undergirding the functioning of (small “d”) democratic politics is self-interest—the notion that people will speak in defense of and work for the advancement of their own values and interests.  Those who—like the Blue Elephants—don’t do either, lose.

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