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The Death March of the Moderates

- February 29, 2012

A famous map by Charles Joseph Minard illustrates the plight of Napoleon’s Army during the 1812 invasion of Russia. At each point of the map, the strength of Napoleon’s army is depicted by the width of a bar showing the movement of Napoleon’s troops. At the beginning of the campaign, this bar is several inches thick, but it steadily narrows at Napoleon reaches Moscow. During his retreat during the harsh winter, the bar narrows dramatically. By the time the French Army exits Russia, the line is the width of a pen stroke.

Such a map may now be appropriate to representing the size of the Senate’s moderate contingent. With Oylmpia Snowe’s announced retirement, it appears that the moderates may now have turned the corner at Moscow and are headed into a winter retreat of oblivion.

Using DW-NOMINATE scores that fall between -.2 and 2 as a rough indicator of moderate, eleven moderates served in the 107th Senate (2001-2002). These were:

• Max Baucus
• John Breaux
• Susan Collins
• Lincoln Chafee
• Mike DeWine
• Jim Jeffords
• Zell Miller
• Ben Nelson
• Olympia Snowe
• Arlen Specter
• Gordon Smith

In hindsight, it is easy to see that this was an endangered group. With perhaps the exceptions of Specter and DeWine, they were all Democrats representing heavily Republican states or vice versa.

Nevertheless, the size of the group (if not its individual members) held up reasonably well over the decade. The 111th Senate (2009-2010) had ten moderates. The group had been reinforced by the Blanch Lincoln, Evan Bayh, Scott Brown, George Voinovich, Joe Manchin to offset the departures of Breaux, Chafee, DeWine, Jeffords, Miller, and Smith.

But it appears that the Russian winter has set in. Bayh and Voinovich retired before the 2010 elections, and their seats were taken by conservative Republicans. Specter and Lincoln were defeated for reelection. These seats also went to conservatives. Nelson is joining Snowe in retirement. It is expected that Nelson’s seat will be won by conservative Republican or the liberal former Senator Bob Kerrey. Snowe’s seat will almost certainly be won by a liberal Democrat. Brown is currently fighting for reelection in a high profile campaign against the liberal hero Elizabeth Warren. If he loses and no new moderates are elected, the moderate battalion will be reduced to Baucus, Collins, and Manchin.

Although my cutoff at +/-.2 is somewhat arbitrary, the story would not change much if I expanded the window. Of the near misses, Jim Webb is retiring and Richard Lugar is in a tough primary battle.

The collapse of his army had dire consequences for Napoleon’s regime. I hope the same will not be true of the Senate following the rout of the moderates.