Democrats’ ability to compromise with the increasingly polarized GOP could be further imperiled as the number of centrist Blue Dogs continues to wither, experts predict.
Blue Dog Democratic Co-Chairman for Communications Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) has seen his coalition of ideological centrists shrink from 54 members in 2010 to just 25 today. That loss is a contributing factor in why, after 12 years in office, he will not be running for reelection come November.
Experts concede that party polarization is asymmetrical, with the GOP moving further and further to the right. But both parties have been fleeing the center in recent years, leaving a dearth of centrists willing to come together in agreement on long-term legislation.
In the 1970s, around 30 percent of lawmakers were considered centrist based on their voting records, according to James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
Today, that number has plummeted to between 5 and 8 percent of members of Congress.
“It is not good for our democracy that we have this missing middle and the decay of the middle,” Thurber said.
Several GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), have become so fed up with extreme partisanship that they have announced in recent months they will not seek reelection.
And while the Tea Party has received much of the blame for gridlock, Thurber notes that roughly 80 progressives in the House are currently unwilling to compromise and are using wedge issues and message discipline to hammer the GOP opposition.
“It’s a problem on both sides,” he said of the ever-widening divide.
“The Democrats are losing the middle by losing the Blue Dogs in the middle who are willing to work with the Republicans, and they were especially willing to work with Republicans on big [issues] of the debt and deficit and the budget,” Thurber added.
House Appropriations Committee member Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) has witnessed firsthand the need for compromise on such issues, and has publicly voiced his frustrations with recent failures to reach compromises on budget issues.
“I think it’s very important that we retain a bipartisan capacity,” he said. “For these long-term fiscal issues, both parties are going to have to come down off their preferred positions. That’s just the nature of budget agreements.”
But, he acknowledged, Democrats will only increase their moderate ranks if they beat GOP challengers in the coming election.
“The disappearance of the Blue Dogs, a lot of them, is the result really of the way the  election went and where the vulnerable seats are rather than any attempt on the part of Democratic leaders to enforce any kind of orthodoxy,” he said. “If we win [in 2012], we get more moderates. If we lose, we get fewer moderates.”
Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, isn’t too optimistic about the likelihood of a near-term influx of centrists.
“I don’t think [Blue Dogs will triumph] in this election so much. I think this election is not going to be a big party sweep one way or the other,” he said. “Everything we’re seeing right now is for a highly, highly polarized 113th Congress.”
Thurber echoed the sentiment.
“I think it’s unlikely that we’ll get Blue Dogs back in. The South is realigned, it’s Republican; many of the Blue Dogs lost in the South,” he said. “I don’t see the Blue Dogs coming back. I see the Republican Party just sort of going off the cliff on the far right.”
But that could present a golden opportunity for Democrats to grab the center should the GOP continue to cede the middle ground in favor of the far right.
“At the end of the day, this is probably not a winning strategy,” said Loomis of the GOP migration. “As you move farther and farther to the right, Democrats simply occupy more of the middle. They’re quite comfortable occupying the middle.”
“Democrats are just more pragmatic and will eventually fill that space,” he added. “I think long term that’s what most political scientists would predict, that the Republicans will go too far to the right and there will be some reaction.”
But, for some centrist lawmakers like Ross, that’s just too far in the future to gamble on.
“If we’re going to get rid of the dysfunction in Congress, both parties are going to have to learn to compromise,” he said.
“I’m optimistic that things will get better,” Ross added. But, “nothing’s getting done ... the American people are frustrated and I am too. That’s why I’m getting out.”