‘The Political Middle Has Disappeared’

by Stuart Rothenberg October 25, 2013 · 9:36 AM EDT

A terrific post-shutdown “after action report” by Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, who is one-half of the bipartisan polling team that conducts the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, includes one slide (No. 7) that I found particularly instructive.

Titled “the political middle has disappeared,” it shows the ideological distribution of Republican and Democratic members in the House in 1982, 1994, 2002, 2011 and 2012, based on National Journal ratings.

In 1982, only a handful of Republicans were more conservative than the most conservative Democrat and only a handful of Democrats were more liberal than the most liberal Republican. Because of that, a stunning 344 members of the House rated between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat.

By 2002, most Democrats were more liberal than the most liberal Republican, and most Republicans were more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. Because of that, the number of members in the “overlap” dropped to 137 members, and in 2012 only 11 members fell in that “political middle.”

That single slide doesn’t explain all of the gridlock but it helps explains why the parties can’t work together and why Washington can’t run smoothly in an era of divided government.

Anyway, the slide got me thinking about how un-ideological our political parties were in the early 1980s, when Georgia had a Democratic congressman named Larry McDonald, who was a member of the John Birch Society and the Moral Majority. McDonald received a perfect 100 percent rating from the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action in 1980. His AFL-CIO rating was 5 percent and his score from the very liberal Americans for Democratic Action was 6 percent.

McDonald was killed Sept. 1, 1983, when KAL 007 was shot down by a Soviet fighter.

Texas Democrats Marvin Leath and Phil Gramm and Oklahoma Democrat Glenn English weren’t quite as conspiratorial as McDonald, but they were very conservative by the standards of the early 1980s. Politics in America, 1982 (CQ) referred to Leath as “a Republican in all but the nominal sense.”

Across the aisle, New York Rep. Bill Green, Massachusetts Rep. Margaret Heckler, California Rep. Pete McCloskey and Rhode Island Rep. Claudine Schneider all could have fit comfortably in the Democratic Party.

Times definitely have changed. There is no indication that we are headed to an election in 2014 that will send many more moderate Republicans and Democrats to the House. The political middle is what it is. And that means that there is no reason to expect the two parties will find more common ground in the months and years ahead.