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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Times are tough for centrist senators

Ronald Brownstein Los Angeles Times

There was something poignant and powerfully revealing about the public agonizing last week of Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., over John R. Bolton, President Bush’s nominee as ambassador to the United Nations. Chafee, an iconoclastic moderate, is a swing vote as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considers Bolton’s nomination this week. Every committee Democrat is likely to oppose Bolton; if Chafee – or conceivably another Republican, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska – joins them, the nomination would die without ever reaching the full Senate.

Chafee isn’t likely to bury Bolton. The senator believes presidents deserve to pick their advisers, absent some overwhelming reason to the contrary. Chafee was appointed to the Senate in 1999 after the death of his father, John Chafee, and elected in 2000. In that brief Senate career, the younger Chafee has voted to confirm every executive-branch nominee he’s considered for Presidents Bush and Clinton.

During the contentious Foreign Relations hearings last week, Chafee gave every indication he intended to back Bolton. Chafee says he’s waiting to hear all the evidence. But his press secretary, Stephen Hourahan, says the senator “is inclined” to give Bush his choice at the United Nations. Yet Chafee also made it abundantly clear last week that Bolton would not be his choice. “I wish this wasn’t the nominee to the United Nations,” Chafee said plaintively. Chafee’s lament captured a dynamic much larger than the struggle over Bolton. This is a miserable moment for centrist senators. They are caught between a president pursuing an aggressive, even crusading, conservative agenda and a Democratic Party fighting ferociously to block it. That frequently leaves the centrists, like Chafee with Bolton, wishing for an alternative that isn’t available.

Historically, Senate moderates have thrived by bridging the differences between the parties. But on most issues, the two parties today are hurtling away from each other at high speed. “It’s hard to serve as a bridge when the two sides are so far apart,” notes Brown University political scientist Darrell West. Just as important, each party’s dominant voices now believe their side benefits politically from accentuating, not narrowing, those differences. The moderate senators are like diplomats counseling compromise to two countries that have already decided on war.

Ironically, it’s the Senate’s centrists, not the ideologues, who are threatened most by this heightened partisanship. Many of the centrists are caught behind enemy lines: The Republicans represent blue states that usually vote Democratic for president, such as Rhode Island’s Chafee, while the Democrats come from red, GOP-leaning states, such as Nebraska’s Ben Nelson. Their constant challenge is to satisfy activists in their party without alienating an electorate back home that generally prefers the other party. That’s not easy when the two sides are colliding as much as they are now.

“The nature of our politics today,” says independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, “is to squeeze people in the middle.”

Chafee, facing re-election next year, is feeling as squeezed as anyone. Conservatives grumble about all the times he’s defected from Bush’s agenda. Chafee voted against Bush’s tax cuts, the Iraq war and drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’s indicated opposition to private Social Security accounts and the Republican threat to ban use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees. In November’s election, he wrote in the name of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, rather than vote for the president.

That record has opened Chafee to the threat of a primary challenge from the right. The most likely challenger, Stephen P. Laffey, an energetic young conservative now serving as mayor of Cranston, R.I., hasn’t tipped his hand. But the conservative Club for Growth, which specializes in funding challenges against moderate Republicans, already has run ads against Chafee on Social Security and seems eager to mount a full-fledged insurrection. “My gut instinct is he would be vulnerable,” says David Keating, the group’s executive director.

Chafee’s problem is that any step he takes to bolster his GOP credentials exposes him to potential general election attacks in one of the nation’s most Democratic states. Democrats already are stockpiling examples of Chafee’s votes for Bush. If Chafee backs Bolton, it could provide Democrats a powerful symbol to argue that the senator, for all his independence, is helping to advance Bush’s agenda more than most people in Rhode Island prefer. Moderate Democrats facing re-election next year in Bush-leaning states, such as Nebraska’s Ben Nelson or Florida’s Bill Nelson, must keep their own parties happy without providing the GOP ammunition to portray them as an unreasonable impediment to a president generally popular with their voters.

So far, Democrats from red states say they see no danger in opposing Bush priorities such as restructuring Social Security. But their risk of being branded obstructionists increases as the conflicts between the parties multiply. The same, of course, is true for Republicans from blue states. If the debate in Washington remains this polarized, the most likely outcome is a continuing decline in senators representing states that usually prefer the other party in presidential elections.

That would further reduce the number of senators with an inherent incentive to construct compromises and soothe partisan tensions. And that would fuel more polarization that increases the pressure on the remaining centrists. As the middle erodes, the politics of perpetual warfare is feeding on itself.

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