Dipping back into conversation in the capital on a brief break from the campaign trail, I heard members of Congress, lobbyists and political operatives stewing about one topic above all others: What happens if this election blows up the center of American politics?
On both sides, they seem to accept the inevitability of significant Democratic losses, although one former party chairman, enjoying a holiday on the Nile, told me by phone that he thinks the Democrats might still retain their majority in the House and Senate.
But he was no less worried about the prospects for President Barack Obama’s government than any of the others I interviewed. The common fear is that the swing to the right that everyone expects on Nov. 2 will include such wild gyrations and produce such untried novices that the partisan warfare of the past two years will seem mild by comparison.
Bill Galston, the Brookings Institution’s resident political philosopher, was the first of the day to point out that, statistically speaking, the center had already disappeared. He was referring to the congressional voting studies, which I have previously cited, showing that, apparently for the first time, there is no overlap between the most liberal Republican in the House and the most conservative Democrat when it comes to roll-call votes.
Historically, there have always been a few Republicans who voted often with the Democrats and a few more Democrats who lined up regularly with the Republicans. But now the ideological lines are more sharply drawn and the distance between the parties is greater.
What I found here on my return from a reporting trip to the Midwest was a widespread expectation that the gulf will be expanded by the election results. Obviously, we don’t know who will emerge as winners. But there has been so much focus on some of the Republican primaries, where solid conservatives have been upset by men and women even further to the right, that the stereotype of a Party of Sarah Palins is understandable.
The notion may be misguided. Surely some of the challengers whose credentials look most questionable will be stopped short of victory. And others whose opening comments seemed inflammatory may be doused with practicality along the way.
Nonetheless, what has dawned on official Washington is that one of our great political parties — Republican — has undergone much more than the normal between-elections transition. And the other — Democrat — is having a helluva struggle adjusting to the change.
The Democrats oscillate between depicting their Republican opponents as know-nothing radicals, with barely a fragmentary libertarian view of government, or as pawns of a sophisticated Wall Street financial combine. They are happiest when the opponent permits them to dress him in Nazi garb.
The Republican leaders have to take the question of who these people are much more seriously, because these freshmen will soon be sitting in and calling signals for their caucuses. The fact that so many of them are being financed in their races by new non-party, interest-group political operations makes the options for wild political swings even greater.
I don’t foresee a challenge to Mitch McConnell or John Boehner for the GOP leadership in the Senate or House when the new classes gather in Washington. But I see a clear test ahead for those leaders.
This is not ultimately a radical nation, and those Republicans who are in love with radical notions of remaking the society to fit their own philosophy will have to be brought back in touch with reality.
When a party fails to do that, it can find the seeds of its own destruction in the victory banquet. Republicans, and the country, deserve better.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at firstname.lastname@example.org.