Bipartisanship. Moderation. Compromise.
These are exalted words that get much play among responsible talking heads and are held up as aspirations for our political system. The idea is a popular altar at which the chattering class worships. For me, it is a central part of my platform and occasional preachings.
Sad to say, the constituency for such concepts and such an approach to governance seems to be small and shrinking. Republicans want the bloodiest of red meat and display little appetite for anything less. Democrats, too, prefer their meat rare (when not ordering a meat-substitute) and show little interest in halfway measures.
Ah, some will ask, that may be true for many partisans on both sides, but what about all those unaffiliated or “independent” voters?
Unfortunately, the observation here is that this uncompromising polarization is substantially true even among those who on the surface eschew the party structure.
Well above 40% of Colorado voters may be registered as unaffiliated and that share continues to grow. But the largest chunk of those unaffiliated voters reliably choose team blue; a smaller chunk regularly pick team red; and the distinctly smallest number are truly “independent” voters with no fixed allegiance and a propensity for picking and choosing between the candidates of each party.
Ticket-splitting on a large scale is a bygone relic. Those around here with some gray hairs might recall the 1978 election, when Democrat Dick Lamm was reelected to the governorship with 60% of the vote while, at the same time and on the same ballot, Republican Bill Armstrong won a U.S. Senate seat with a nearly identical 60% total.
Such voter independence and back-and-forth discernment is impossible to imagine in the current context. This past year, when Cory Gardner ran five points better than GOP standard-bearer Donald Trump, it was considered a noteworthy accomplishment, even if still en route to a nine-point shellacking.
The color purple is much discussed in political circles. Colorado Public Radio has a weekly podcast dubbed, “Purplish.” The color is what you get in mixing together large swaths of red and blue. Purple may be a political complexion on a broad scale (even if those days have waned in Colorado), but rather few individual voters are of a purple hue.
Which brings us to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the subject of much attention in a 50-50 body and the object of significant derision among his Democratic Party’s activist base which knows only the accelerator pedal.
A healthy, thriving body politic would welcome more Joe Manchins, experienced officials with an instinct for the political center and an intuitive feel for their home state. This is true on both sides of the aisle. Among the GOP, the same can be said for Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and others.
In this era, such people receive outsized attention due to their rarity. As America has sorted into one party distinctly left and one hard to the right, there is a decreasing market for centrists. So-called “blue dog” Democrats have largely been sacrificed in party primaries; ditto for countless “Rockefeller Republicans”. Heck, even Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats are endangered in this absolutism.
With respect to the filibuster and proposals for Democrats to cast it aside, the dirty little secret is that Manchin, along with Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, are taking the heat for a handful of their Democratic colleagues who are also disinclined to permanently dispose of this procedural hurdle.
In the hands of Mitch McConnell (or Harry Reid, for that matter), the filibuster has been abused. At a minimum, its use should require strong-bladdered oratory; not simply a tweeted threat. However, abuses and overuse notwithstanding, protection of minority viewpoints is a core part of our constitutional order.
Also, what goes around comes around, and Democrats may soon want this protection against an activist Republican Senate.
While Republicans set a very high bar for delusional thinking (see “election denial”), Democrats are not without their own disconnect. After four years of Trump and McConnell, the demand in the ranks of Democratic loyalists is to “go big.” Yet, an evenly divided Senate and a House with the thinnest of majorities effectively precludes a lot of those ambitions.
While voters in 2020 rejected Trump, they far from embraced the Democratic platform. Senate and congressional results for Democrats were well below expectations. Therein lies the disconnect between their dreams and the reality of their political position, as Manchin makes for a convenient scapegoat.
Many Democrats who find release in their disdain for Manchin might recall not that many years back when Republicans had much the same reaction to John McCain’s independent bearing.
For Democrats, McCain was a hero of backbone and fortitude. But when one of their own comes up short on team play and instead plays the maverick in reaching across the aisle, the insults flow.
Such is the nature of our take-no-prisoners, brook-no-compromise politics. When you are all-in with one team or the other, the tolerance for internal dissent is a fast casualty.
With a fondness for sports analogies, I often compare the political lay of the land to a football field. In years gone by, Democrats tended to occupy the 40-yard line on the left; Republicans the 40 on the right. The distance between these two yard stripes was frequently manageable and negotiable.
These days, Democrats typically play from the left-hand end zone while Republican set up shop in the opposite end zone a full hundred yards away. The expanse between those two goal lines is vast. And neither party has much use for members who set out to narrow the gap or bridge the divide.
Anyone care to meet somewhere in the general vicinity of midfield?
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for ColoradoPolitics and the Denver Gazette. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann. Read his columns here.