Close To The Edge: Tales from Tripoli, Madison and Washington

BY Gwen Ifill  February 25, 2011 at 1:03 PM EST

When I was just a young thing, I loved a song by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five called “The Message.” “Don’t push me, ‘cuz I’m close to the edge,” the refrain went. “I’m trying not to lose my head.

A lot of people seem to be losing their heads of late. We’ve spent the last few days cringing at what Moammar Gadhafi may do to protesters (and innocent bystanders) in Libya. We’ve watched in astonishment as lawmakers fled the Wisconsin and Indiana state capitols rather than be backed into a corner on anti-union legislation.

And in Washington, we’ve seen history on rewind as Democrats and Republicans play a gigantic game of chicken over the prospect of shutting down the government.

These are wildly different conflicts, but at the root of it all are individuals and governments who have decided compromise is for chumps. There are winners and there are losers, but there is precious little middle ground. (Grandmaster Flash’s lyrics continue: “It’s like a jungle sometimes; it makes me wonder how I keep from going under…“)

National Journal captures the Washington part of this fractured equation quite neatly this week in a cover story titled “Pulling Apart.”

Ron Brownstein’s story manages to attach numbers to something we have long suspected – that partisanship and polarization have reached epic levels in today’s Washington. The middle has simply disappeared.

National Journal has been ranking members of Congress on a scale of liberal to conservative every year since 1982. (Remember when Sen. John Kerry inconveniently earned the “most liberal” label just as he was attempting to tack to the middle during the 2004 presidential campaign?)

This time, the polar opposites in the Senate are Arizona’s John McCain and seven others on the right, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and eight others on the left.

But the most interesting discovery is that the most “moderate” members of Congress still remain well apart on the ideological divide. No Republican senator- including well-known moderates like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Ohio’s now-retired George Voinovich – was as liberal last year as the chamber’s most conservative Democrat – Nebraska’s Ben Nelson.

In the House, there was a little more ideological overlap, but not by much. After the 2010 midterm elections only one Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina, compiled a voting record that could be considered moderate.

National Journal’s rankings are based solely on a lawmaker’s voting record, which does not take into account efforts many elected officials make to find middle ground before votes are cast. But as the ongoing standoff over budget cuts demonstrates, there appears to be little reward – or incentive – to get to the middle anymore.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner provided the most unintentionally illuminating window into this new reality when he repeatedly refused to allow “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl to force him to use the word “compromise.”

“You’re saying, “I want common ground, but I’m not gonna compromise,” Stahl finally said. “I don’t understand that. I really don’t.”

“When you say the word “compromise”… a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh-oh, they’re gonna sell me out.’” Boehner replied. “And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.” (Italics mine)

This world view can play out in dangerous ways, as when Libyan leader Gadhafi declares that he will fight to the last bullet. But here at home, we see it in more benign, but still consequential, ways – when lawmakers flee rather than act, or when the clock ticks down toward a March 4 federal budget deadline.

“There’s a little bit of bumping around in the numbers here and there,” political scientist Gary Jacobson told National Journal. “But the basic movement is toward the parties moving further and further apart.”

The National Journal print edition contains an arresting 1988 photograph. Then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and Senator Majority Leader Robert Byrd – the Republican and the Democrat — are seated holding telephone receivers as they call President Reagan to inform him of a Senate ratification vote. They are surrounded by eight other senators – every last one of them grinning to beat the band.

Four are Republican. Four are Democrat. For the life of me, I can’t imagine such a photograph – or even such a meeting – taking place today.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.