By E.J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress retire all the time, but some retirements are leading indicators of the direction of our politics. Rep. Sherwood Boehlerts announcement last week to call it quits matters, and in a depressing way.
The affable 69-year-old New York Republican is one of the last of a breed: a liberal Republican, though he calls himself a moderate and has the record to prove it. Boehlerts departure does not leave the House completely bereft of liberal Republicans -- Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa is actually more liberal than Boehlert. But Leach, alas, is an outlier. The spotted owl is in good shape compared with liberal Republicans.
Boehlert chose to retire in the year when National Journal, the political worlds answer to Sports Illustrated, featured him as the ultimate Down the Middle guy. In its Feb. 25 issue, the magazine published its annual ratings showing that Boehlerts votes were more liberal than those of 52.2 percent of House members and more conservative than 47.8 percent. Boehlerts district includes the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and its hard to move the ball more to the middle of the plate than he does.
Its been downhill for his brand of Republicanism from the moment he set foot in Washington as a congressional staffer in 1964. Thats the year Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination and the great flight of the Republican liberals began.
After Goldwaters landslide defeat, two Republican progressives who later became conservatives, George Gilder and Bruce Chapman, wrote a brilliant book called The Party That Lost Its Head detailing how and why the partys liberal wing responded so anemically to the conservative challenge. But it was too late. The party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt was destined to become an annex of the conservative movement.
Bohlert has always been unabashed in embracing his liberal roots. Over breakfast on a sunny summer morning in Cooperstown five years ago, Boehlert proudly embraced two of the most progressive politicians of his lifetime. People say to me: Why are you the kind of Republican you are? Because in my formative political years, when I was coming up in New York, my governor was Nelson A. Rockefeller and my senator was Jacob K. Javits.
Why does the decline and fall of liberal Republicanism matter? After all, rationalizing the political system into a more conservative GOP and a more-or-less liberal Democratic Party makes the alternatives clearer to the voters who are offered, in Goldwaters famous phrase, a choice, not an echo.
But it turns out that a Republican Party dominated by conservatives is no more coherent than the party that left room for progressives. The huge budget deficit is conservatisms Waterloo, testimony to its political failure. The conservatives love to cut taxes but cant square their lust for tax reduction with plausible spending cuts. Oh, yes, a group of House conservatives has a paper plan involving deep program cuts, but other conservatives know full well that these cuts will not pass, and shouldnt.
Paradoxically, because the liberal Republicans didnt pretend to hate government, they were better at fiscal responsibility. They were willing to match their desired spending levels with the taxes to pay for them. It didnt make for exciting, to-the-barricades politics. It merely produced good government.
Boehlert, being an optimist by nature, was always ready to declare that the moderates moment had finally arrived. Last November, after I had written a column taking some moderate Republicans to task for backing the outrageous budget bill that passed under the cover of darkness at 1:30 a.m., there was Boehlert on the phone insisting that he and fellow moderate Mike Castle, R-Del., had wrung some important concessions out of the House leadership. is Maybe so, I replied, but I had a higher opinion of moderate Republicans and expected more of them than that lousy budget bill.
The problem may be that Boehlert and Castle did get as much as they could, given the numerical weakness of their variety of Republicanism, but thats not good enough. I suspect Boehlert knows this. Absent a robust progressive wing, congressional Republicans will continue to produce fiscally incoherent government. Democrats now have the task of representing their own brand of politics, and the progressive Republicans, too.
Personally, Ill miss Boehlert and his optimistic moderation. Our politics worked better when a sufficiently large band of Republican moderates and liberals could take the edge off polarization and orient government toward problem-solving. But the liberal Republicans are gone. We have to deal with the GOP we have, not the GOP we wish still existed.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group