Joe Lieberman's retirement provides an opportunity to think about what "moderation" means in today's political climate. Lieberman crafted himself as an independent thinker, not tied to any political party ideology, always doing what he thought was right. That is probably a description of how the majority of Americans would want their representatives to think and act. Yet, Lieberman (like party switcher and self-styled independent thinker Arlen Specter) found himself with no political constituency -- headed toward certain electoral defeat. Does this retirement - preceded by the defeat in Republican primaries of moderates like Mike Castle, conservative but not conservative enough for Utah (former) incumbent Robert Bennett, middle of the road governor Charlie Christ (bowed out before the primary - a political TKO) - show that there is no room for moderates in today's politics? Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (who could only be considered a moderate in Texas) & Senator Kent Conrad (a fiscal conservative Democrat from double digit Republican North Dakota) have also decided to hang it up this year.
The Lieberman case, I think is special. Democratic voters in Connecticut had made their peace with Lieberman's style of politics -- liberal on some issues (the environment, civil rights), centrist on others (taxes, spending) and neo-con on others (foreign policy). But it is one thing to be independent, depart from the party line on occassion, and vote your conscience on foreign policy and chastizing your party, delighting in frustrating party ambitions, and castigating core loyalists. The Lieberman of the 90s could have held on to his seat forever, the Lieberman of the new century could not. Lieberman would say that he didn't leave the party - the party left him. That's a tough line to reconcile with his endorsement of McCain for president.
But then what of moderates in general? Polls show most voters somewhere in the middle - why aren't middle of the road politicians mopping up in elections. Yes, some of this can be blamed on a party primary system in which few participate and is dominated by the activist extremes. The campaign finance system also has an effect (if you care deeply about, let's say abortion, why give money to a centrist on this issue where you could give money to a candidate that is strongly for Roe v. Wade or wants to outlaw abortion entirely).
I think the problem is that moderates have not defined what moderate-ism is. There is no well defined ideology of centrism -- what does it mean on the great issues of the day -- social issues, the economy, war and peace. It can't be -- we want a little less than the Democrats and a little more than the Republicans. A good example of the problem is how Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Ben Nelson played it on the stimulus package. Democrats cut out a little bit of the spending and they voted for it. Why? What was the economic theory of centrism that told them a $850 billion stimulus was too much and a $780 billion was just right?
One of Obama's big problems has been that he campaigned with a centrist tone (lets work out our differences, let's find common sense solutions, don't call you opponent an enemy) but with a progressive substantive agenda (expand health care coverage, increase taxes on the wealthy, close Guantanamo). He disappointed centrists with his policies and liberals with his non-combative approach to governing.
Perhaps the effort at defining centrism in the post-Great Recession world begins tonight with the State of the Union.