Many voters consider themselves to be political moderates, not partisans on the right or left. To appeal for their votes, candidates claim they can “work across the aisle.”
But do voters really favor political leaders who will sometimes vote in line with their wishes and sometimes against them? Is it possible to be a moderate politician, if the “aisle” turns out to be a canyon?
Moderate politics may be one of the grand myths of American politics and more wishful thinking by voters than reality.
A moderate might propose solutions to political issues that yield some satisfaction to each side, but also some dissatisfaction. Compromise might be acceptable, because everybody wins something, just not everything, they sought.
That kind of moderation is only possible if both sides are willing to give some ground. If one side insists on full acceptance of its demands, a moderate politician will fail. In Congress, the extremes of both parties show little willingness to accept anything less than complete victory.
The ideological wings of both parties now have enough seats to block compromise. Though still occasionally possible, it is unusual.
More often, what voters mean by “moderate” is the politician who generally supports their party but may sometimes split with it on key votes. Such a moderate may act independently when responding to their constituents or adhering to a personal principle when they resist party discipline. They may do so, especially if they don’t tip the balance.
Some voters believe that on issues mattering a lot to them, the office holder can be counted on to split with their party. When that does not happen, the moderate can quickly be scorned as a mere partisan.
Take the case of Sen. Susan Collins. She provided one of the key votes that saved the Affordable Care Act and opposed some major Trump appointments. She has been considered to be a rare GOP moderate and most likely that is how she sees herself.
Then she voted with her party to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Everything changed. In the eyes of Kavanaugh’s opponents, Collins became a loyal Trump supporter, though she had not supported him for president and had routinely backed presidential Supreme Court nominees.
Collins’ situation is complicated by Sen. Mitch McConnell, her Republican leader in the Senate. As a member of his party, she inevitably votes to retain him as her Senate leader. But McConnell does not see some major issues as she does.
She is then exposed to his obvious willingness to back Trump and his strict discipline in the Senate, blocking many votes that might embarrass GOP senators. He usually bars compromises, insisting on his way or nothing. Collins may have to go along with him so she can get good Senate committee assignments, which he doles out.
McConnell initially expressed concern about President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to fund the Wall. But when Trump insisted, he changed position without hesitation. Collins had been among Republican senators opposed to the declaration. McConnell simply ignored them. She stuck to her opposition.
Does that make her a moderate? Now set against her, some voters disappointed by her Kavanaugh vote said her latest position was a sham, because she could count on Trump successfully vetoing the resolution disapproving his declaration. Had she supported Trump, she would also have been condemned.
Perhaps this case showed there’s no room for moderates in American politics. They cannot create compromises, and independent-minded moderates cannot satisfy some voters unless they act like they belong to the other party. Then, of course, they would not be moderates.
It may also show that voters who say they want moderate politics are either chasing a political ghost or badly missing the excessively partisan nature of today’s politics.
Suppose a majority of Maine voters had opposed Kavanaugh and believed his appointment would be the single most important issue before the Senate. By voting for Collins, they had given McConnell great power to steer the Kavanaugh vote.
Of course, that kind of foresight by voters is impossible. We cannot predict what votes or nominees are coming and if a senator will break party discipline on a critical issue – even if the senator is a moderate.
Politicians, even moderates, do not often split from their party. If voters want politicians who will reliably vote in favor of their positions, they may have a better chance if they choose between the parties.
In this age of extreme partisanship, more certainty may only come from voting as a partisan, not as a moderate.