Pity the poor dealmakers, for Congress is no longer a happy hunting ground.
A decade or two ago, Louisiana’s moderate-to-conservative Democrats like John Breaux in the Senate and Billy Tauzin in the House were shrewd, capable and willing to buck their party leadership as centrists in either chamber. They brokered deals with President Ronald Reagan or the Bushes across party lines, quite often winning special laws or tax provisions for Louisiana.
To tell the truth, they were more moderate as Democrats back home at election time, and more conservative as special interests asked them for legislative favors in Washington.
They and another former congressman, Rodney Alexander — all now lobbyists, natch — deplored the polarization which has gripped Congress, with party-line votes the rule even in what had been the much more collegial Senate.
“Many of them just hate each other today,” said Tauzin, 74, who represented south Louisiana for 25 years in the House, as a Democrat and then as a Republican. The three spoke to the Council for a Better Louisiana annual meeting in Baton Rouge about the good ol’ days, which as always are perhaps better recalled than they actually were.
There was bitterness and backstabbing then, too. Breaux recalled bipartisan barbecues and members grabbing drinks with members from the other party. “It’s a lot harder to stab someone in back if you have dinner with them the night before,” he said. But the Reagan years were a period of sharp divisions, too; the Clinton years were savagely bitter.
More than 100 members of Congress sleep in their offices, rather than have apartments or homes with their families in the Washington area, Tauzin said. It’s uncomfortable, he laughed, but it also limits interactions with others outside of the Capitol battle.
Perhaps, as Alexander added, members should spend more time with each other, but the underlying factors about why things are so ugly are probably due less to socializing and more to socialism, or fears thereof — that is, politics are strikingly different as Republicans become more conservative pushing back at increasingly liberal Democrats.
There are structural problems, such as computer-assisted drawing of districts in the House — and in the Legislature in Baton Rouge, too — but the political scientists say that the voters themselves are becoming more partisan in outlook. To borrow a phrase from analyst Bill Bishop, there is a “great sort” going on, with Americans living in neighborhoods and cities that are increasingly homogeneous politically and socially.
That means, as Tauzin pointed out, that the two parties’ primaries favor candidates of the extremes, so that members of Congress fear primary challengers more than general election candidates of the other party.
Politicians aren’t prophets to convert the masses. A candidate wants to win, with a majority of the vote if possible and with a minority — George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump — if necessary.
The trend of polarization isn’t going to be schmoozed away. The old Pogo cartoon strip saw the situation clearly: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Jim Brady: The death at 73 of the respected senior judge on Baton Rouge’s federal district court is deeply felt in political circles statewide, because of his long tenure as head of the Louisiana Democratic Party. He was a living example of what is needed in politics, as he was a gentleman and a partisan, without being ugly about it, and retained lifelong friends across the political spectrum.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.