Republicans who attempt to actually participate in legislative governance are assured of being pilloried by conservatives — and, more than likely, challenged in their primary. To survive in their party, even long-time Republicans have to suck up to the most rabid and conspiratorial parts of their base.
Similarly, Democrats who make the slightest pragmatic compromise get bombarded from the left — as Michael Capuano did when he voted for a health-care bill that barred public funding of abortions.
Perhaps when the economy returns to normal, and public attention turns away from Washington, things will get better, and the rapid pace of turnover will subside.
But perhaps not; perhaps the rapid turnover is only making things worse.
Much attention has been paid lately to the way the US Senate works — or fails to. But it's seldom noted that 28 of the 100 senators are new to their jobs in the last three years.
Just last year, 16 new senators were sworn into office (and another switched parties) — the second-highest single-year figure in the last 50 years, behind only 1981, when there were 17.
That included 10 newly elected senators in November 2008, plus four chosen to replace those moving to other offices (Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Ken Salazar), one caused by a resignation (Mel Martinez), and one by a death (Ted Kennedy).
This came after a 2006 election cycle that saw 12 new senators come in — and now 2010 is guaranteed to be the third consecutive double-digit changeover cycle. The last time that happened, according to Senate records, was 1977/'79/'81 — another period of economic turmoil. That's probably not a coincidence.
The House of Representatives is a similar story, with more than a quarter of all members having taken office in the last three years. But it's not simply a matter of how many have left that's important — it's also who.
Moderate Republicans have been fleeing office in a steady stream in the past few years, leaving in power only the most rabid conservatives, representing the most solidly red districts and states. (The GOP's 41 senators represent just 27 states, with less than half the country's population.)
That trend is continuing. Retiring Republican senators include Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and George Voinovich of Ohio, two of the few remaining moderates; the same is true in the House, where Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Vernon Ehlers are hanging up their shingles.
Just as important, few Republicans remain who recall when the GOP did not pursue its current strategy. Gregg is one of only 14 Republican senators who predate Trent Lott's ascension as GOP leader in 1996; 60 percent of House Republicans were not in office during Bill Clinton's presidency.
The Phoenix could find only one year in the past 50 when more senators chose not to run for re-election than the 11 doing so (thus far) in 2010. That was 1996, when 13 senators opted not to run for re-election, including eight Democrats and five Republicans.