The Senate’s partisan paradox

election-mapYou know politics has reached a strange and sorry state when the best way to support your party’s agenda is to vote against its candidates. But that’s become exactly the case in several Senate races pitting partisan stalwarts against moderate challengers. Ours is the most polarized Congress in generations, and when the balance of power has all the weights stacked on either end of the scale, the strain in the center leads to unusual choices.

No race embodies this dynamic as much as Massachusetts’. Moderate Republicans like Scott Brown are an endangered species, and in Elizabeth Warren he faces a liberal lioness every bit as partisan as the late Ted Kennedy. Should she win, Warren will no doubt fulfill her promise to fight for Democratic causes in the Senate. But no matter how brilliantly or passionately she fights, that is all she will be– one more fighter among dozens of other Democrat fighters pitted against dozens of Republican fighters.

There’s no shortage of fighters in Washington, and adding one more to either side makes little marginal difference. But moderates peacemakers and deal makers like Brown are rare and indispensable to Congress’ health and functioning as an institution. Unfortunately, a combination of brutal primary elections, blatant gerrymanders, and personal disillusionment have effectively purged moderates of both parties from Washington. Our Congress is a body strained near to breaking; a Warren victory would sever one of the last ligaments holding it together.

But voters are keenly aware that Massachusetts could end up determining control of the entire Senate. Warren stakes her campaign on ensuring a Democratic majority, but a Brown win would be even more advantageous for his state. Whereas Warren would function as just another counter-weight on Democrats’ side of the scale, Brown’s centrist position could make him the fulcrum on which the Senate’s entire balance of power would rest. With both parties vying for his vote, Brown’s position in the strategic center would give Massachusetts influence far beyond anything Warren could offer as an ordinary freshman Democratic senator. Like his predecessor Ted Kennedy, Brown would be able to wield his extraordinary influence in the Senate to advocate powerfully for Massachusetts as a whole.

But Warren’s warning of a Republican Senate does touch a nerve with Massachusetts Democrats. The fact is, the national Republican party does not represent Massachusetts’ views. But Massachusetts is partly to blame. How can the GOP represent Massachusetts if Massachusetts never sends representatives to the GOP? Scott Brown is a moderating, sensible influence within his party, and he’s living proof to Republicans that they have something to lose by abandoning the center. Brown’s strategic importance actually causes a bigger leftward shift among Republicans than Warren could ever cause among Democrats.

In Brown, Massachusetts Democrats and Independents at last have a representative among national Republicans. Their Congressional delegation already gives them ten strong voices among Washington Democrats; it hardly makes sense to give up on the entire other half of our government just to add Warren as number eleven.

The nation is watching Massachusetts’ Senate election because more is at stake than just the Senate. Rejecting Brown would send a message to every politician in America confirming their fears that bipartisan compromise is political suicide. If a moderate can’t win in Massachusetts, what hope do moderates have elsewhere?

But reelecting Brown would send an even stronger message: voters are sick of partisan divisiveness; voters are smart enough to appreciate leaders with the courage to seek compromise. If a moderate can beat a Democrat in Massachusetts, moderates have a chance anywhere.

It’s easy to envision Scott Brown and moderate Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Joe Donnelly working together to find common ground. Yet picturing Elizabeth Warren and Richard Mourdock even sharing a conversation without coming to blows strains imagination– but so far that’s the sort of Senate we’ve been heading for.

Not so long ago, Congress included a spectrum of northern Republicans and southern Democrats that tempered the extremes of both parties, and our country was better for it. This election can either be another footnote in our country’s polarized plunge toward disunity, or it can begin a new chapter for America in which moderates follow Brown to Washington and restore reason to our government.

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