The Senate's Shrinking Middle : Still another moderate announces retirement

Come January, the Senate will lose what it can ill-afford to spare, another voice of reasoned good sense. William Cohen, the three-term senator from Maine, has become the 13th incumbent to choose not to seek reelection this year.

In deciding to leave, he joins such moderates as fellow Republicans Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Democrats Bill Bradley of New Jersey and David Pryor of Arkansas. Other familiar and respected figures are also departing, among them Democrats Sam Nunn of Georgia and Paul Simon of Illinois and Republicans Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.

It is an unprecedented exodus not just of experience but of commitment to a balanced, nonideological approach to legislating. What the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has called the vital center of American political life will be diminished as a result.

UNEXPECTED STEP: Cohen's announcement was unexpected because the decision behind it was only recently and suddenly reached. The crystallizing issue, he said, was the continuing budget stalemate in Washington and, implicitly, the political gamesmanship so heavily involved. Cohen continues to share the bedrock belief of his party as well as of growing numbers of Democrats and independents that the United States "must finally return to the virtues of self-discipline and fiscal prudence." Like others in Congress on both sides of the aisle, his frustration over process, over the means used to try to achieve these goals, has steadily deepened.

In another time, a decision to quit by a large percentage of those generally in the wide middle of Congress' political spectrum would perhaps not be perceived as a danger sign. In our own time, when the practice of politics threatens to become increasingly polarized, it is a clear matter of concern.

It is not that the 1994 congressional elections showed an unmistakable swing to more conservative candidates. The basis for concern rather is that many of these candidates, especially those elected to the House, embrace a rigid ideological extremism that resists or rejects the idea of compromise, without which effective representative government is not possible. Likewise some liberals are dead set against political deals.

COLLEAGUES' PRAISE: Commenting on Cohen's decision, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) noted that in seeking to manage the issues that agitate and so often embitter our political life, "solutions have to come from the center."

Carrying forward that theme, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said "there's a growing majority of people out there who want independent, practical, common-sense government such as Bill Cohen has symbolized." It would be an enormously healthy thing for our political culture if that assessment proves to be accurate. We'll know when the votes are counted in November, and when we see what kind of people replace the departing congressional moderates.

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