Hardly anyone noticed when Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a Republican turned independent, announced he was registering as a Democrat. His conversion, however, marked another significant step in the gradual extinction of an ancient and honorable political species: Progressive Northeastern Republicans or PNRs.
For many years, the center of gravity in the Republican Party has been shifting to the south, the west and the right. That left PNRs like Chafee out in the cold. "The Southerners," the governor told Chris Matthews on MSNBC, "just had a different view of where the Republican Party should be and as a result, Northeasterners and some of the other moderate Republicans slowly were taken out of the party, either by elections or by choice."
With the retirement last year of former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, only one true PNR remains in the Senate: Snowe's fellow Mainer, Susan Collins. Snowe recently published a book, "Fighting For Common Ground," in which she documented her own disillusionment.
That feeling of rejection extends to Republicans far beyond the East Coast who share the centrist politics of Snowe and Chafee. Bob Dole of Kansas, the former Senate leader and presidential candidate, told Fox News the GOP should hang out a sign saying "closed for repairs." Asked by host Chris Wallace whether he'd be welcomed by today's Republicans, Dole replied, "I doubt it. Reagan wouldn't have made it, certainly Nixon wouldn't have made it, because he had ideas."
The decline of the PNRs makes it far harder for a Democratic president like Barack Obama to pursue any sort of legislative compromise because he lacks a negotiating partner on the other side. When Speaker John Boehner tried to forge a fiscal bargain with the president, he was undermined by the hardliners in his own caucus. He won't try again.
This "atmosphere of polarization" is not what Americans want from Washington. In the last election, 41 percent of voters called themselves moderates. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, seven out of 10 agreed the Republicans were "out of touch" with the concerns of ordinary Americans; two out of three said the GOP was not doing enough to compromise with the president.
The National Journal has long studied congressional voting patterns and by their definition, the Senate contained 58 centrists in 1982; that number dropped to 34 in 1994 and 7 in 2002. By 2010 there were none.
Democrats share the blame. Over the last generation, many conservative Southerners have defected to the GOP, voicing sentiments almost identical to Snowe's: "I didn't leave the party, the party left me."
The PNRs are just about gone. And American politics is much poorer without them.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.