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Indiana Senator Richard Lugar describes himself as a “Reagan Republican,” which in today’s politics makes him a moderate. Soon he’ll describe himself as an ex-senator, because moderates have no place in today’s Republican Party, as Lugar can now attest—he lost last night’s Republican primary to the staunchly conservative state treasurer, Richard Mourdock.
The rapid extinction of the Republican moderate is hardly news. So few remain that they are essentially regarded as historical figures, and it’s not the least bit unusual in Washington to convene windy panel discussions to marvel at their days of yore and speak about them in the past tense. (Lugar’s invitation to the next one is probably already in the mail.)
Moderate Democrats aren’t faring much better. Two weeks ago, Representatives Jason Altmire and Tim Holden, both of Pennsylvania and both “Blue Dog” Democrats, were defeated in their own party primary, in this case by more liberal members*. The cause of their loss wasn’t identical—Altmire and Holden lost in part because they were running in newly redrawn, gerrymandered House districts, whereas Lugar, who ran statewide, simply lost to a more partisan foe. But the effect is the same: Congress will become more polarized as liberals and conservatives gain strength and moderates disappear.
That could soon have big implications, for instance in December, when Congress is forced to work out some compromise to raise the debt ceiling and address the expiring Bush tax cuts and the looming budget sequester. The examples of Lugar, Altmire, and Holden will have a chilling effect on anyone who might be willing to break from party orthodoxy during the lame-duck period—making a disaster scenario more likely. In fact, Mourdock himself is a perfect illustration of why that is so: He has vowed to be “confrontational” and has said full Democratic capitulation to his Tea Party ideals is the only form of “comprise” he’ll accept.
*Altmire’s opponent, Mark Critz, also considers himself a moderate, but because he did not vote against the health-care law (he wasn’t in Congress at the time), he did not draw as much ire from liberals