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Lott's Legacy

From today's Washington Post story on Trent Lott's impending resignation:

Lott's departure from Capitol Hill in the coming weeks after 34 years in Congress--16 in the House, 18 in the Senate--is further evidence that bonhomie and cross-party negotiating are losing their currency, even in the backslapping Senate. With the Senate populated by a record number of former House members, the rules of the Old Boys' Club are giving way to the partisan trench warfare and party-line votes that prevail in the House. States once represented by common-ground dealmakers, including John Breaux (D-La.), David L. Boren (D-Okla.), James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), are now electing ideological stalwarts, such as David Vitter (R-La.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

This reminds me of the old game on Sesame Street where you have to pick which one of the things is not like the others. Among Lott, Breaux, Boren, Jeffords, and Hollings, you have three moderate-to-conservative Southern Democrats, one moderate-to-liberal New England Republican, and one orthodox conservative Republican from a very red state. That is, you have four people facing intense electoral pressure to be centrist pragmatists, and one collegial good old boy who just really likes cutting deals in smoke-filled back rooms. To lump them all in as "common-ground dealmakers" is more than a little misleading.

But Lott's example is a far more useful model for the future of Congress than the other four. Because of the ideological sorting out of the last few decades, there simply aren't going to be very many Jeffordses and Borens for the foreseeable future. On balance, this is probably a good thing. But the downside of having cohesive, ideological parties in a system where you need 60-plus-percent support to get anything done is that you no longer have a bevy of moderates to engineer deals. You need people, like Lott, who are willing to make genuine compromises--to work with political opponents even though, ideologically, they'd prefer not to. One hopes that more people with back-slapping, deal-making temperaments like Lott's (though, of course, without the racial baggage) will soon emerge as both parties realize that simply annihilating the other side at the ballot box is not a realistic aspiration. Only time will tell.

--Josh Patashnik