I don’t lament the decision of Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., to retire at the relatively young age of 57, because he’ll likely be replaced by a conservative Republican.
But I do have a tinge of regret. Mr. McIntyre is a moderate Democrat. His lifetime voting record on the index maintained by the American Conservative Union is 49.6 percent.
Moderates in Congress — moderate Democrats especially — are an endangered species.
“Moderate” can be highly subjective, so let me be clear about what I mean. If the political spectrum is divided into quintiles, lawmakers whose voting records place them in the middle 20 percent would be “moderate;” those who score in the quintiles to either side would be “moderate conservative” or “moderate liberal;” those in the quintiles at either end “liberal” or “conservative.”
When the ACU first issued its ratings in 1971, 179 Members of the House of Representatives scored between 21 and 80; 60 between 41 and 60 (those who scored between 41 and 60 are counted twice).
In the Senate, 33 scored between 21 and 80, 16 between 41 and 60.
In 2012, 116 House Members had lifetime voting records between 21 and 80; 12 between 41 and 60. Twenty six senators scored between 21 and 80; 3 between 41 and 60.
The average score for Republican senators was 67 in 1971, 86 in 2012. For Democrats, it was 24.3 in 1971, 10.3 in 2012.
The ideological shift has been greater among Republicans, but Democrats are more liberal than Republicans are conservative. Most of the moderates remaining (all three senators and all but four of the 12 congressmen whose lifetime voting records put them in the middle quintile) are Republicans. Of the four moderate Democrats in the House in 2012, Mr. McIntyre and Jim Matheson (Utah) plan to retire at the end of this session; Rep. Dan Boren (Oklahoma) retired in 2013.
Four of the 27 senators who voted conservative 81 percent or more of the time in 1971 were Democrats; 3 of 37 senators who voted liberal 81 percent or more were Republicans. Eight Democrats voted conservative 51 percent or more of the time; 12 Republicans voted liberal more often than not. Back then, partisan affiliation was determined more by geography than ideology. The South still hadn’t forgiven Republicans for the Civil War.
Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans have since gone the way of the buffalo and the passenger pigeon. The most “conservative” Democrat in the Senate in 2012 (James Webb of Virginia, since retired) had an ACU rating that year of 36 percent. The lifetime ACU rating of the most “liberal” Republican senator that year (Susan Collins of Maine) is 49 percent.
This is just as well. Political parties should have some ideological coherence. But if moderates follow conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans into extinction, something very valuable will be lost.
The two party system is the most stable form of democracy, because the victorious party nearly always has majority support. To gain a majority, a party must appeal to centrist voters. When both parties compete for votes in the middle, a moderating influence is exerted on our politics.
In a two party system, successful parties must necessarily be big tents. They should overlap in the middle. And Democrats would be wise to tolerate the occasional “moderate conservative” in their ranks; Republicans the odd “moderate liberal.”
Bipartisanship is overrated. But for government in a democracy to function, compromise is essential.
The presence of at least some moderates in both parties facilitates compromise when it is necessary. When ideological divisions are as stark as they are today, it’s harder for Democrats and Republicans to treat each other — and the democratic process — with respect, much less to put aside differences and work together for the common good when circumstances demand it.
Policy can lurch between ideological extremes with each election. This is unhealthy — except in a national emergency, when a lurch is required to prevent catastrophe.
I think such an emergency approaches, so I don’t mind that Mr. McIntyre’s retirement will deepen the ideological chasm. But in the long run, if moderates were more welcomed in both parties than they are today, we’d all be better off.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Press and the Blade of Toledo, Ohio.