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Has Partisanship Really Gotten So Bad On Hill? Yes

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh says his stunning decision not to seek a third term was prompted by the partisanship that has gripped the nation's capital, stunting progress on the country's most pressing issues.

There's no doubt that Americans share the centrist Democrat's disgust with how Congress is conducting itself these days: In at least a half-dozen major polls taken this year, close to three-quarters of those surveyed said they disapprove of the job Congress is doing.

But is the D.C. dysfunction really so unusual? In a word, yes.

Historic Rancor

Historians and politicos alike say the current rancor on the Hill is, indeed, historic, and has been building over recent decades to a level unlike any in modern times. Some had to reach back to the late 1800s and the progressive movement to find comparable Capitol Hill acrimony. It exceeds that of the 1940s, when Harry Truman ran against a "do-nothing" Congress to win the White House, and the sharp partisanship of the more recent administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

"People who remember the period of the mid-20th century likely remember a time of a lot of cross-party coalitions in Congress," says Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow at Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution. Those long-ago memories may include a coming together under President Reagan to shore up Social Security.

"But," says Fiorina, "it's been terrible for a long time."

While personal reasons were surely also behind Bayh's decision — and that of several other centrist senators who have decided not to seek re-election this fall — the moderate middle's disgust with business as usual on the Hill and its growing anti-incumbent fervor cannot be disregarded.

President Obama's ascension to the Oval Office was seen by many of his supporters as a change from partisan politics. And, indeed, historians say the country was due for one of its periodic political shifts. But Democratic leaders over-read the mandate that Obama's election represented, Fiorina says, and the president has made his own missteps.

The anticipated historic shift to a new conversation now appears indefinitely on hold while party members — even the remaining small clutch of once-reliable aisle-crossers — retreated to their corners.

There Really Used To Be A Middle Ground

The current polarization began in the 1960s, with the Democrats' internal divisions over Vietnam, says historian Buck Melton. Later, he says, it grew as the Nixon-era Watergate scandal divided Republicans. And it has accelerated with new media and parties shrunk to accommodate a narrowing menu of special interests.

But earlier, from the 1940s into the early 1960s, there existed something of a national consensus on issues, he says, and the two main parties "tended to meet somewhere in the middle."

"The Eisenhower administration, for example, simply slowed down FDR's New Deal and didn't try to end it," says Melton, distinguished writer in residence at Mercer University.

The Evolution Of The Partisan Politician

The parties' retreat to their more extreme current positions naturally caused them to shrink, say political historians.

The parties now represent a much more homogenous point of view, Fiorina says: Every Democrat has essentially the same constituency — and every Republican is in the same boat.

It's made the geography much more difficult for people like Bayh who are "cross-pressured," Fiorina says — for example, a Democrat from a rural district where constituents may be more socially conservative and pro-gun. Or a Republican in a socially progressive state like Connecticut, which no longer has any Republicans in Congress.

Fiorina cites several mileposts along the path toward partisanship and polarization: party leaders' continuing aggressive efforts to redraw congressional districts into safe havens for their members; ongoing demographic shifts; and the more recent disconnect between Washington politicians and their constituents back home.

Members of Congress used to interact with cross sections of their constituents — say, at Kiwanis Club lunches or at meetings of the local Rotary and Lions clubs.

"At one time, they'd come back home and speak at these gatherings to a cross section of people: those of different political parties, different economic status," he says.

With the decline of those groups — and the rise of single-issue organizations that members now meet with more often — lawmakers are pulled to extremes on issues including abortion, gun control and gay rights, the argument goes.

The shrinking/polarized parties observation is not new, but it has become a growing obstacle to getting work done in Washington, observers say.

So Whose Fault Is It?

Former Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Republican from Minnesota who served from 1978 to 1995, says he has seen the dramatic changes and the evaporation of comity play out over the past three decades.

"During the period of time I was there, you could just watch the decline," he says.

He lays the blame largely at the doorstep of his own party for its focus on abortion — which, he says, "sapped the strength out of the middle of our party." And he laments the influence on the party of social conservatives like the now-deceased Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

"My gut tells me that my party right now hasn't got a foundation to it," he says.

Former Sen. George McGovern — not surprisingly — agrees.

"What's changed is the Republican Party, because they've got a right wing that's so intimidating you really can't work with them anymore," says McGovern, a liberal Democrat from South Dakota who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1972.

He recalls his days working with Republicans like Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. "The moderates just aren't there anymore, or they're too intimidated by the Karl Roves of the world," he says.

Or by the adherents of the budding anti-tax Tea Party movement.

Melton, however, cautions that blame can be cast on both sides.

"There is some truth that Republicans deserve some blame," he says. "But it's only half the truth.

"In the last 30 years, we've had some of the most doctrinaire presidents — and that includes Clinton and Obama," Melton says.

A shift away from hyperpartisanship doesn't appear in the offing anytime soon.

The Tea Party, third-party stirrings and disappointment in Obama have made members of Congress jittery about that old "hand-across-the-aisle" way of getting work done. And that, says Fiorina, could suggest a continuing period of political uncertainty, partisanship and trading of Capitol Hill control.

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