Hardly anyone noticed when Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a Republican turned independent, announced he was registering as a Democrat. His conversion, however, marked another significant step in the gradual extinction of an ancient and honorable political species: Progressive Northeastern Republicans or PNRs.
For many years, the center of gravity in the Republican Party has been shifting to the south, the west and the right. That left PNRs like Chafee out in the cold. “The Southerners,” the governor told Chris Matthews on MSNBC, “just had a different view of where the Republican Party should be and as a result, Northeasterners and some of the other moderate Republicans slowly were taken out of the party, either by elections or by choice.”
With the retirement last year of former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, only one true PNR remains in the Senate: Snowe’s fellow Mainer, Susan Collins. Snowe recently published a book, “Fighting For Common Ground,” in which she documented her own disillusionment.
“The party’s changed,” she said on the TV show “Chicago Tonight.” “I haven’t. I haven’t left the party. I think the party left me. ... Sometimes, I say I felt like a cast member on Survivor — presented with a lot of obstacles and you get a feeling you’re no longer wanted.”
That feeling of rejection extends to Republicans far beyond the East Coast who share the centrist politics of Snowe and Chafee. Bob Dole of Kansas, the former Senate leader and presidential candidate, told Fox News that the GOP should hang out a sign saying “closed for repairs.” Asked by host Chris Wallace whether he’d be welcomed by today’s Republicans, Dole replied, “I doubt it. Reagan wouldn’t have made it, certainly Nixon wouldn’t have made it, because he had ideas.”
The decline of the PNRs makes it far harder for a Democratic president like Barack Obama to pursue any sort of legislative compromise because he lacks a negotiating partner on the other side. When Speaker John Boehner tried to forge a fiscal bargain with the president, he was undermined by the hardliners in his own caucus. He won’t try again.
In her book, Snowe cited this dynamic as the main reason for her departure: “I found it exceedingly frustrating that an atmosphere of polarization and my-way-or-the-highway ideologies had become pervasive in our governing institutions, compromising our ability to solve problems at what was a time of monumental challenge for our nation.”
This “atmosphere of polarization” is not what Americans want from Washington. In the last election, 41 percent of voters called themselves moderates. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, seven out of 10 agreed the Republicans were “out of touch” with the concerns of ordinary Americans; two out of three said the GOP was not doing enough to compromise with the president. But no one seems to be listening.
Immigration stands as the sole exception. Even some conservative Republicans favor a compromise on that issue because it would appease two key groups: Hispanic voters and business interests. Otherwise the “my-way-or-the-highway” mindset dominates the capital. And it’s getting worse.
The National Journal has long studied congressional voting patterns and by their definition, the Senate contained 58 centrists in 1982; that number dropped to 34 in 1994 and 7 in 2002. By 2010 there were none.
Democrats share the blame. Over the last generation, many conservative Southerners have defected to the GOP, voicing sentiments almost identical to Snowe’s: “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.” Centrists like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were challenged in primaries for deviating from liberal orthodoxy; others have been ostracized for anti-abortion or pro-gun views.
But the Republican migration to the right is far more significant and the Chafee family reflects that shift. Lincoln’s father John was a senator for 23 years, a classic New England moderate who championed environmental causes and was dumped from his leadership post in 1990 by a conservative from Mississippi. Lincoln was appointed to the Senate after his father’s death in 1999 and won a single term on his own in 2000, but after he lost in 2006, he left the GOP and ran for governor as an independent.
Now he’s a Democrat, and when Matthews asked if he’d ever return to his father’s party, Chaffee said no. “I was wondering, is the party going to come back to my way of thinking? And I just made that decision,” he said. “It’s not coming back.”
He’s right. The PNRs are just about gone. And American politics is much poorer without them.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.