Prior to 1994, Congressional leaders in the House of Representatives, Tom Foley for the Democrats and Bob Michel for the Republicans, were gentle nudgers. But in 1994, the Republicans chose Newt Gingrich as their House leader, and he quickly applied the choke chain. Noisy Newt soon fell upon ethics difficulties and wore out his welcome, eventually leaving Congress, but his choke chain survived and is now being yanked by even harsher leaders.
Pulling back the moderates leaves two packs, like snarling dogs confronting each other. Those dogs on each side who would naturally be inclined to cautiously approach some of the quieter dogs on the other side, sniff them over and decide they are all right to be around without the need for snarling and fighting, are not able to follow there natural instincts. But now, in Congress, two such dogs have emerged, one from each side.
Democrat Steve Israel of New York accidentally smashed with a door the foot of Republican Tim Johnson of Illinois, as both were hastily leaving from a House vote. The two, both starting their third term, while discussing the accident, shared complaints about the tone in Congress and decided they should do something to improve it. They agreed to start a bipartisan "Civility Caucus", which some are also calling the "Center Aisle Caucus", to blow the whistle on disrespect in the House and to develop a moderate bipartisan legislative agenda.
The Civility Caucus is just in the formative stage, but has already received endorsement from former leaders Foley and Michel. Skeptics have doubts about prospects for such a movement. People supposedly prefer civility to haranguing, but harangues attract bigger crowds. House leaders will work hard to undermine any movement which they see as a threat to their personal power, by pulling or yanking the chains of moderates. As a reaction to Gingrich, in 1994 some moderate Republicans formed the Republican Main Street Partnership, which still exists, though a view of its web-site seems to indicate it is currently almost a one issue group, Republicans in favor of stem cell research. There is supposed to be a group of Democrats in favor of more fiscal responsibility, called the Blue Day Coalition, but a Google search did not find them.
Partisan politics comes with the turf in a democracy. It is absent, at least nominally, only in one party regimes. Ideally, partisanship should be a starting point for approaching issues, then matters of degree within the party should be recognized and respected. Respect for those in one’s own party with whom one disagrees should lead to respect for those of the opposing party with whom one disagrees only slightly and then finally to respect for all on the other side.
My hunch is that the Civility Caucus will have its hands full just addressing matters of lack of respect. Whether it ever gets around to developing its own legislative agenda remains to be seen, but the odds may be against it. Democrats seem more likely to draw back their own moderates by gentility, being they are in the minority and are less strident to begin with, though it might be smarter for Democrats to let the Civility Caucus develop their own agenda to siphon votes away from the Republicans on more moderate issues. Current Republican leadership is more likely to use the choke chain, such as targeting moderates for replacement in the primaries rather than bending to accommodate them. That strategy that might not be that bad for the Democrats since it draws down Republican resources and turns off moderate voters, and Republican moderates who defeat such primary challenges should be that much more interested in developing the Civility Caucus agenda.
What about forming a Moderate Civility third party? That is very unlikely to happen. Third party movements appeal to the same types of people who are attracted to harangues. They are not moderates. They are usually Democrats or Republicans who think their party has moved too much toward the middle, or people who just don’t like either party. Let’s keep our eyes on this new Caucus. As Republicans keep yanking to the right and Democrats fumble around deciding exactly what to do, this bipartisan moderate movement could become important, at least in the short term.