Bill Ritter and the Burden of Moderates

The current political environment seems intent on proving once-and-for-all that being moderate and being electable aren't the same thing. In fact, with ideological passions ...
by | January 7, 2010

The current political environment seems intent on proving once-and-for-all that being moderate and being electable aren't the same thing. In fact, with ideological passions flaring, you can make a case that moderation is an electoral liability.

That's one of my takeaways from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter's decision yesterday not to seek reelection. From the first year of his term, Ritter's challenge has been balancing the competing demands of business and labor groups.

The Democrats who have taken power in Colorado over the past decade have a reputation for being more business-friendly (or business-friendly as defined by the Chamber of Commerce and like-minded groups) than their brethren elsewhere. So, expectations were high from business leaders when Ritter took office. Of course, expectations were high from labor too with Ritter replacing Republican Bill Owens.

These competing expectations turned out to be almost impossible to meet. You could see this happening early on. When Ritter made a seemingly mundane decision to offer state employees some more power to negotiate with their bosses (but not full collective bargaining rights), the Denver Post compared him to Jimmy Hoffa. The Denver Post, by the way, had endorsed his 2006 campaign.

At the same time, Ritter never came close to satisfying the demands of labor. He vetoed pro-labor bills, alienating a critical Democratic constituency. Ritter didn't win Republican or independent friends by being a moderate. He simply made lots of Democratic enemies. That's a big part of why he was an underdog for reelection this year -- and likely why he abandoned his campaign yesterday.

Ritter is far from the only example of a politician whose centrism is doing him more harm than good. Look at Creigh Deeds in Virginia last year or Dede Scozzafava in New York-23. By taking a compromise position on health care reform -- in favor of the bill, but only without a public option or Medicare buy-in -- Joe Lieberman has angered his constituents on the left and the right. Life isn't great right now for Arlen Specter or Charlie Crist.

Undoubtedly, for Ritter governing as an unabashed liberal would have come with its own risks in a swing state like Colorado. But, the moderate course Ritter chose turned out to be something close to politically suicidal. In this election cycle and perhaps beyond, centrists look as though they will be stuck unpleasantly in the middle of warring conservatives and liberals, neither of whom have much use for them.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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