Extreme partisanship poisons the political process

    Has the ability to work across partisan lines in politics become more of an albatross than an asset?

    If you ask U.S. Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate Dick Leinenkugel or some of the 20 Wisconsin state legislators who aren’t seeking re-election this year, the answer is likely “yes.”

    Maybe it’s the anti-incumbency mood apparent in public opinion polls. Or perhaps it’s a take-no-prisoners philosophy adopted by some Republican and Democratic Party regulars. For whatever reasons, politicians who have dared to work with people in the opposing party – once a hallmark of American statesmanship – have become targets for partisan cleansing.

    By most accounts, Utah’s Bennett had a safe seat. His voting record over 18 years was predominantly conservative in a conservative Republican state. Bennett was scandal-free and his father served four Senate terms a generation before him. But Bennett this year co-sponsored an alternative health-care bill that had a Democratic author, and he voted for the emergency Troubled Asset Relief Program in September 2008.

    That was enough for Utah Republicans, at a recent state party convention, to vote two younger conservatives on to the state’s primary ballot and to boot Bennett off. Thanks for the memories, Sen. Bennett.

    Democrat Lincoln, viewed by many Arkansas Democrats as too moderate, failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary and now faces a June 8 runoff in the Arkansas Senate primary to decide the party’s candidate in November. Lincoln has been blasted by the party’s liberal wing for not supporting a government-run public option during the congressional health care debate. Never mind the state tilts Republican and a more liberal candidate might lose the general election – let the purges begin!

    The national trend toward political purification is also evident in Wisconsin’s 2010 election season.
    Excessive partisanship is being cited as a reason why 20 Wisconsin legislators so far have decided not to run again. State Sen. Alan Lasee (R-De Pere), a former Senate president, is quitting after serving in the Assembly and Senate for 36 years. He’s fed up with bitter campaigns and slash-and-burn politics.

    “I think they’re fed up with the (expletive),” he said of his fellow retirees in an interview with the Associated Press. “You can print that and I don’t care. For those of us who have been around for a while, the atmosphere in the Capitol has become somewhat poisoned.”

    Then there’s the curious case of Dick Leinenkugel, who is among four Republican candidates competing to run against incumbent U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)

    When Gov. Jim Doyle asked Leinenkugel in late 2008 to consider serving as state Commerce Department secretary, everyone pretty much knew “Leinie’s” credentials. He describes himself as a “Ronald Reagan conservative” and anti-abortion Catholic. He’s a former U.S. Marine who believes in a strong defense policy, and his family has been brewing beer for more than 150 years in Wisconsin.

    As soon as Leinenkugel announced he was running for Senate, however, he came under fire for working for Democrat Doyle. The Sauk County Republican Party went so far as to adopt a resolution rejecting his candidacy and refusing to invite him to county GOP events. So much for Reagan’s “big tent” Republican Party in Sauk County.

    A refreshing contrast – at least, so far – is the state Senate candidacy of Janesville’s Tim Cullen. Democrat Cullen served previously in the state Senate for 13 years ending in 1987, when he agreed to become Gov. Tommy Thompson’s secretary of Health and Human Services. Cullen was a Senate Majority Leader in the 1980s, but agreed to serve in a Republican administration and did so admirably before taking a private-sector job.

    Today, Cullen openly uses the “m” word – moderate – to describe himself and says he wants to return to the Capitol to provide “some more adult-like behavior and hopefully bring the parties a little closer together and have a more moderate state Senate.”
    In the politics of 2010, that makes Cullen a marked man.


    Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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