We love our moderate independents here in Connecticut, or at least former Rep. Christopher Shays, now running for U.S. Senate, sure hopes we do. “The Connecticut I know values independence and straight talk, not someone who is a sure vote for his party, be it Democrat or Republican,” Shays said during his announcement speech this Wednesday, calling on the restless legacy of the man he’s running to replace. Indeed, Shays sometimes seemed like a Republican Joe Lieberman during his time in Congress; pro-war, socially moderate, fiscally conservative with a pragmatic streak and prone to pointing to his own independence as his greatest virtue.
It worked for him for a long time, and Shays is clearly hoping it’ll work again. And why not? That seat has been held by stubborn, independent-minded guys for half a century. Thomas Dodd, Lowell Weicker and Joe Lieberman all excelled at both carving out middle paths and driving first partisans and then everybody else bonkers. So here’s the plan, then: run to the middle, paint opponent as hopelessly partisan, appeal to the frustration voters feel with hyper-partisanship and presto, next January you’re carving your name in Joe Lieberman’s desk. Easy!
It may be tougher than he thinks. Like many latter-day mavericks who made a career of bucking their own parties, Shays finally got caught in the partisan meat grinder. The misery of the independent is isolation, and by the time Shays was finally booted from the seat he’d held since the late 1980s most of the independent-minded moderate to liberal Republicans who were once so prevalent here had vanished. The ideological chasm between the national parties has engulfed liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats alike by forcing them to walk a very fine line between tacit support for the party and rejection of some of its core policies. This has become a much more difficult thing to do. The comparatively broad ideological coalitions that made up the mid-century political parties don’t really exist anymore.
What this means for politicians who pride themselves on being unconventional members of their party is that they may run and win, but they’ll find it much more difficult to find a place in today’s hyper-partisan Congress except on the sidelines. Independents like to talk about bridging the ideological divide, but when was the last time the national parties really came together on any issue of importance? The House has historically been bad at this, but now even the more collegial Senate has turned into an exercise in creative ways of blocking both legislation and appointments. Sen. Lieberman touted himself as a bridge builder, but he hasn’t been all that successful at bringing the two sides together. In fact, his journey between the parties has left him with few allies, little political leverage and zero chance of re-election. Even President Obama, who is at heart a pragmatic centrist, has had a very difficult time engaging the increasingly strong and strident left and right wings.
It also leaves these sorts of politicians open to charges of political opportunism, especially when they need to win over the party faithful in a primary. This is what’s happening to Mitt Romney, who has had to back out of all the perfectly sensible positions he’s taken in the past in order to get past the howling mob of the right wing. It could potentially happen to Shays as well. For example, he spoke out against Obamacare in his announcement speech, saying he’d vote to repeal the act and let the states draft their own health care plans. In 2008, though, Shays supported a health care plan proposed by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) which not only contains an individual mandate like Obamacare, but a hefty federal subsidy. One of the best qualities of many moderates is an ability to shift positions based on new knowledge and understanding, but in a political world that values certainty and consistency this can look like mushiness at best and hypocrisy at worst.
We really do still like moderate independents, it’s true, in that way that we like baseball and apple pie. But I think we like the idea of independents a lot more than we like actual independents, and this might be where the Shays campaign runs aground. We theoretically like divided governance, as well, but we also like it when the government actually accomplishes things. In the toxic soup of national politics, it seems like we can’t have both.
This is a miserable political reality, emblematic of our times. However, if Chris Shays can come up with innovative and effective ways to start building real moderate coalitions and soften up some of the rigid partisan walls that have been built up over the past decade, then he’ll find widespread support. But if all he has is platitudes about independence, he might find that frustrated and disillusioned voters want more.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner/editor of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and her cats.