Why Lisa Murkowski is a Symbol of Our Broken Politics

Typically when assigning blame for our political problems, we focus on the fringes (unless, of course, the person assigning blame comes from those fringes). But I also believe that moderates' unwillingness to assert themselves, and their willingness to be team players contributes to the problems. Today I highlight an example of that. 

I appreciate Senator Lisa Murkowski's (R-AK) willingness to break with her party and work in a bipartisan fashion, especially on the procedural votes that have become the bane of productive governance. Indeed, on policy, Murkowski deserves plaudits and offers hope for functional government. 

Nonetheless, in the last few weeks, it has become apparent to me that Murkowski is also symbol of everything broken about our political system. 

In 2010, Murkowski lost to Tea Party activist Joe Miller in the Republican Senate primary. Murkowski ran a successful write in campaign to retain her seat, and to her credit, she understood that she likely owed her victory to support from Democrats and independents (Miller received 35.49% of the vote, whereas Democratic candidate Scott McAdams only won 23.46% of the vote). Her willingness to work across party lines recognizes this support. 

Indeed, a recent survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling indicated that Democrats and Independents are more favorably disposed towards Murkowski than are Republicans. 

Yet, when it came time to choose sides in the hotly contested Alaska Senate race, Murkowski supported Republican Dan Sullivan over Democratic Senator Mark Begich. Theoretically, Begich is exactly the type of moderate that someone in Murkowski's position ought to support. National Journal ranked Begich and Murkowski the forty-eighth and fifty-sixth most liberal senators in its 2013 vote rankings

Not only did Murkowski actively support Sullivan (unlike some senators from opposing parties from the same state who nominally oppose one another without actively working for their party's candidates), but when Begich ran ads touting the similarity between his record and Murkowski's record, she demanded that he take them down. When Begich refused, the two engaged in a nasty feud. 

The impetus for writing this blog came after yesterday's failed Senate vote on the Keystone Pipeline. I saw a tweet from a reporter who asked Murkowski which Democrat she preferred to work with on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the current Chairwoman Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) who is likely to lose a runoff next month, or Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who would succeed Landrieu as ranking Democrat should Landrieu lose. 

One might think that Murkowski would offer her support in Landrieu, given that they have similar views on energy policy, and that National Journal ranked Landrieu the 44th most liberal senator in 2013 and Cantwell the 5th most liberal. 

Instead, Murkowski demurred, noting that the decision was not hers, but rather, was up to the people in Louisiana. 

Murkowski has two powerful incentives that might be working to quash any desire she has to support colleagues across party lines. First, she stands to be the Chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee now that Republicans have gained control of the Senate. Had she supported Begich, or remained neutral, and had Democrats retained control of the Senate by one seat because he won, Murkowski would have limited her own power. Additionally, the Republicans on a committee determine who chairs the committee and/or serves as its ranking member when Republicans are the minority party by secret ballot. 

Thus, had Murkowski appeared to be anything less than a loyal Republican, she might have risked calls from conservative media and outside conservative groups to depose her as senior Republican on the Energy Committee. Colleagues might well have kept the gavel from her. This would have hurt her career, as well as her state. 

Additionally, Murkowski has apparently decided to run in 2016 as a Republican. As such, she must survive a Republican primary (or resort to the difficult write in strategy again), and her actions indicate that she believes that the primary will be more difficult than the general election. 

She may have concluded that being a staunchly loyal ally to Republicans, especially Sullivan, might help her to survive a Republican primary in spite of her moderate voting record. 

Both her quest for a committee gavel and her electoral calculations provide logical reasons for Murkowski to operate as she has in the last few months. After all, chairing the Energy Committee offers a real opportunity for Murkowski to benefit her state. I'm not accusing her of simply making craven political decisions— indeed she might well agree with Sullivan and Landrieu's Republican opponent Representative Bill Cassidy more on policy than she did with Begich or Landrieu. 

Yet, her actions undoubtedly are bad for governance and a functional Senate. Begich lost a close election by roughly 6,000 votes. It is not inconceivable that Murkowski's support, or at least the lack of her open opposition, might have enabled him to eek out a win. While endorsements do not typically make much difference, it seems possible that the endorsement of a sitting colleague from the other party (especially a home state colleague) would send an important signal to moderate voters. 

If such cross-party support became frequent, it might help to stop, or even reverse, the ever persistent reduction in the number of moderates in the Senate (if Landrieu loses her runoff, five of the eleven most moderate Democratic senators from 2013 will be gone in 2015, all replaced by conservative Republicans). As their numbers dwindle, it becomes ever harder for moderates to assert themselves and to serve as a force in favor of compromise and governance. 

Further, when even the second most moderate Republican senator (who has greater support from Democrats and Independents than Republicans) won't support moderate Democrats over conservative Republicans, and indeed, actively works against such a moderate, it offers little incentive for centrist policymaking. Why would conservative Republican leaders worry about alienating moderates with their legislative proposals and parliamentary gambits when those Republicans are team players? It also cannot be beneficial to the working relationship between moderates in each party when Republican moderates openly oppose Democratic moderates and vice-versa. 

Additionally, Murkowski's actions demonstrate the strong systemic incentives to hew the party line—party caucuses and leaders determine committee assignments and chairmanships. Unless one wishes to run as an independent, candidates must also survive primaries before they can get to general elections, and in many states, the primaries are now more competitive than the general elections. 

If every moderate operated in the way that Murkowski has over the last few months, it seems unlikely that centrists would develop into a powerful bloc in the Senate, simply because of their sparse numbers, and because the party leadership could expect them to be accommodating in most cases. 

Yet, in contrast to Murkowski, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), the most moderate Democrat in the Senate, provided an alternative model of behavior that would do far more to bolster centrism and bipartisan compromise. While Manchin campaigned for moderate Democratic colleagues, he also endorsed Maine Republican Susan Collins (the most moderate Senate Republican), and he refused to campaign against any Republican colleague, arguing that it would set a horrible precedent. 

In his home state of West Virginia, Manchin endorsed unsuccessful Democratic nominee Natalie Tennant in her bid for the state's open Senate seat. But he questioned the morality of criticizing the Republican nominee, Representative Shelley Moore Capito, and he noted that West Virginians had two good candidates from whom to choose. 

In light of today's polarization, the Senate needs more Manchins and fewer Murkowskis. Thirty years ago, it might have been different because a sufficient number of moderates existed on both sides in the Senate that they could wield power simply by supporting fellow moderates within their own parties (my research shows that sixteen of the Republican senators serving in 1986 had lifetime or decade plus average scores from the American Conservative Union of less than 65 (on a 0-100 scale, in which 0 = most liberal and 100 = most conservative). By 2013, that total had dropped to 3). But today, moderates in both parties must band together to have any influence.

If they do so, there is a real chance that they can force party leaders on both sides of the aisle to allow moderate legislation onto the floor, allow amendments, and listen to the vast majority of voters who would prefer to see a productive government. If, however, they continue to largely hew the party line, they further empower activists and extremists.