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Juan Williams: Headed for the exits

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Comedian Bill Maher is on a serious campaign to “flip” a congressional district.

The HBO political talk show host is asking his national audience to pick the worst member of Congress. He then plans to focus belittling attention on that member’s most outrageous statements and actions.

Given that Maher is a liberal Democrat, he is setting himself up to use comic derision to counter the loud voices from Tea Party activists who are driving GOP primary candidates to become more right wing. In the general elections, he will let swing voters know which candidate is a clown.

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Even without being derided by Maher, more than one member of the 113th Congress can expect to see voters looking to elect new people. Congress’ approval rating is currently 12.3 percent, according to the Real Clear Politics average. In the last two years, Congress’s approval rating has not been over 21 percent. That means this is the most unpopular Congress in U.S. history.

Congressional Republicans are subject to particularly strong disdain. An early February McClatchy-Marist poll reported only 22 percent of Americans approve of the GOP congressional delegation. Congressional Democrats had a 33 percent approval rating.

That polling is close to the low approval of Congress before the 2012 elections. Yet 90 percent of Congress members won their races. Even in 2010, the year of the Tea Party tidal wave that saw 63 Republicans swept into Congress, incumbents still won 85 percent of their races.

One factor that could trigger some change in this year’s elections is the rush of retirements.

At the moment, 44 members of Congress have announced their retirement, 20 Democrats and 24 Republicans. Nineteen members of Congress are leaving politics while 12 are running for a seat in the Senate. But the 44 voluntary decisions to exit Congress is double the average over the last 35 years.

The desire to get off Capitol Hill is being driven by the reality that this polarized Congress does not do much. The major accomplishment of this session of Congress, besides trying to gin up scandals, has been a 16-day shutdown of the federal government; passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling are now viewed as moments for celebration.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) told reporters in January the budget deal between the Republican majority in the House and the Democratic majority in the Senate is probably more than the next Congress will get done. The 114th session will take place during the final two years of President Obama’s term, and with the real possibility of more partisanship as the Democrat in the White House pulls out a veto pen to beat back a possible GOP majority in the Senate.

“I think, from a personal and professional standpoint, things are as good as they’re going to get,” Moran said by way of explaining his decision to retire. “Now is the time to leave head first — rather than feet first.”

By every political measure, today’s Congress is frozen by polarized politics. The spirit of compromise necessary to move successful legislation is absent. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) personifies the height or depth of this dynamic, depending on your view of Tea Party politics. Even after the GOP suffered with voters for closing the government last year, Cruz was ready to do it again in this year’s debt ceiling debate.

The next Congress is going to be short on moderate Republicans or Democrats. Most of the retiring members are moderates fed up with Congress’ lack of productive action and targeted in primaries by extremists.

On the Republican side of the House, more than half of the most centrist Republicans are heading for the doors, including dealmakers like Alabama’s Spencer Bachus and Virginia’s Frank Wolf. The major conservative donors are not offering support to any Republican moderates.

On the Democratic side three of the House’s most moderate members, Jim Matheson (Utah), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Bill Owens (N.Y.) are also saying goodbye. They are just tired of fighting the same fights again and again.

In the Senate, the most moderate Democrats come from states that voted Republican in the 2012 presidential race. As a result they are now the targets of hard-line Republican opposition. On the Republican side, any senator seeking to win reelection is being forced to take ever-more conservative positions. Half of the dozen Republicans running are dealing with a primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate.

A trio of political scientists, writing in The Washington Post, recently theorized that short of a “breakup of the party system (as occurred before the Civil War)” or a “major economic crisis,” the best bet for ending the dysfunctional politics in Congress would be for voters to pressure the parties to become more centrist by electing more moderate candidates.

They concluded “absent any electoral pressures or some form of partisan realignment, the trajectory of congressional polarization is unlikely to reverse course anytime soon. Members of Congress are remarkably stable in their ideological positions, and so polarization is likely quite ‘sticky.’ ”

This is a good time to leave.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.