Mark Kirk and the Politics of Moderation

By Alex Katz - June 9, 2011

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In the Senate, Kirk's new home, there can be little doubt that moderate Republicans have become endangered in recent years. There were the prominent losses of Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Ohio's Mike DeWine in 2006, the retirement of Virginia's John Warner in 2009, and of course the defections of Vermont's Jim Jeffords and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who borrowed Ronald Reagan's famous quip: I didn't leave my party, my party left me.

But in the Age of Obama -- accidental or not -- GOP moderates seem to be making a comeback. Most recently there were the remarkable wins of Kirk in Illinois, Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and incumbent Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, all of which have made centrists paradoxically more influential in the Senate as Republicans bridged the gap with Democrats after the midterms.

"We're all very dramatic examples, but we're a signal that times may be a-changing," Kirk said.

Certainly this was true during lunchtime in the Senate a few weeks ago.

Bipartisanship and the Balancing Act

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has quickly become one of Kirk's closest friends in the Senate. "My main man Manch" is what Kirk affectionately calls his pal, a Blue Dog best described as the Democratic counterpart to Kirk.

Disillusioned with the Senate's partisan social cleavage, both starry-eyed newcomers set out to fix things. "Follow me," the freewheeling Mountaineer said to Kirk one day in early May, "I'm heading to a budget meeting and we need to shake things up."

Kirk was hesitant, suspecting that his presence might inflame most everyone at the Democratic strategy session. But Manchin insisted.

"Well OK," Kirk said. "You're my buddy."

So off they went, sitting side-by-side in the meeting for what became five increasingly uncomfortable minutes. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, grew unamused with their shenanigans.

"This caucus is for Democrats only," the visibly miffed North Dakotan told Kirk.

Thanking Manchin for the invite, Kirk stood up, gave a brief but preachy speech about the importance of bipartisanship in these dire times, and bolted from the tension-filled room as he returned smiles with his smirking accomplice.

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