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Waiting for the Train Wreck

Bob Bennett's fall in Utah adds evidence to research showing polarization truly is the worst it's ever been in Washington, D.C.

Over the weekend, reliably conservative three-term Sen. Bob Bennett pretty much lost his job. Delegates to the nominating convention before Utah's Republican primary decided Bennett, after 18 years in Washington, was no longer conservative enough to be their party's candidate this fall.

His transgression? He voted in 2008 for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout that garnered 74 votes in the Senate (including that of GOP leader Mitch McConnell), as well as the support of numerous economists. And he attempted at one point last summer to work with Democrat Ron Wyden on a health care bill — even though he later voted against the package that became law in March.

His defeat has been labeled the first major victory of the 2010 midterm elections for the Tea Party movement. But for those outside the conservative trenches, it represents something much broader: the first indication that polarization in Washington, at its highest point in a century in the 111th Congress, is about to get much worse in the 112th.

"Both economic and social conservatives turned on Bennett, who's really a very conservative guy, for the sin of trying to be a responsible senator," said political scientist Keith Poole, whose widely used roll call data have helped illuminate the modern phenomenon of the Senate with no center.

Poole has tracked moderates of both parties methodically weaned from Congress over the last couple of decades. John McCain may be dashing to the right this year to fend off a Tea Party primary opponent in Arizona, but the two parties have historically drifted farther apart due more often to stories like Bennett's: Moderates don't become extremists; they're replaced by them.

That Bennett wasn't even much of a moderate to start with (and if anything grew incrementally more conservative over the course of his career, according to Poole's data) makes this case all the more alarming.

Poole's model plots politicians on a scale from conservative to liberal using their roll call votes. In the current Congress, his algorithm shows 12 Republicans in the Senate with less ideological records than Bennett. In the 110th Congress, there were 16 Republicans to Bennett's left. The National Journal, which produces its own liberal-conservative scale, pegs Bennett as the 23rd most conservative member of Congress today, decidedly in the middle of his own caucus.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

So how did such a solidly conservative politician become insufficiently conservative in 2010? And what will happen if midterm primary voters — a more ideological group than the voting population at large — continue punishing politicians for the mere act of trying to work across the aisle, even when they're unsuccessful?

Elsewhere in the country, once-popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate, has been ousted from the state's GOP Senate ballot for the sin of hugging a Democratic president. In Indiana, Sen. Evan Bayh (the second most moderate Democrat in the Senate this term) has decided to retire rather than contemplate legislating in a polarized Congress. In Arkansas, fellow Democrat Blanche Lincoln (also among the most moderate in the Senate) has been targeted for defeat by liberal labor groups that don't consider her liberal enough.

And in Arizona, McCain has been working hard to shake off the title he spent decades earning. The buzzword this year isn't maverick. It's purity.

"We're kind of caught in this spiral, where these feedback effects tend to produce more and more sorting out of the political parties so that all the moderates are almost entirely eliminated," Poole said. "The 2006, 2008 elections resulted in a little uptick in moderate Democrats, but most of those people are going to lose this fall."

If voters are angry at the gridlock in Washington and looking to punish anyone associated with it, they may well wind up producing something worse — a Congress even less capable than this one of getting anything done.

In Poole's mind, the timing couldn't be worse with a deficit crisis looming.

"It is a very dangerous development, because you're not going to get any of these problems resolved without some grand deals" between the parties, he said. "There's just no way on God's green Earth Republicans will sign off on a tax increase, and Democrats won't sign off on cutting the major entitlement programs. At some point, there's going to be a train wreck."