Want to know why there is so much partisan deadlock in Washington today? In part it’s because of the rise of a radical Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which is interested in grandstanding, not legislating. But it’s also due to the demise of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as represented by the likes of Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman who served 17 terms in the House and has just died.
Skelton represented the area where Harry Truman came from and he often voted like Truman. He was one of the most pro-defense members of Congress–and one of the most knowledgeable experts on military issues. A longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, he capped his service as its chairman. He made his primary impact not by grandstanding for the cameras but by working quietly behind the scenes to bolster the armed forces. He had a particular passion for enhancing military education and he put in place schooling requirements which remain in effect to this day.
His views allowed him to hold office even as his district turned more conservative. But his luck finally ran out in 2010 when he was beaten by a Republican challenger. Two other conservative Democrats–John Spratt of South Carolina and Gene Taylor of Mississippi–lost in the same year.
Races such as those enabled Republicans to recapture control of the House in 2010. But it’s not your father’s Republican Party anymore. The Tea Party wing is now in effective control in the House–i.e., if not actually able to pass its priorities, it is able to block anyone else’s most of the time. The Tea Party Caucus formally numbers 46 House members but its influence is larger. On the other side of the spectrum are equally ideological members of the Progressive Caucus which now numbers 68 members.
Unfortunately there are too few Ike Skeltons left. Congress and the country are the poorer for it.