WASHINGTON -- Sometimes it takes the passing from the scene of a strong yet reasonable and accommodating voice to show how valuable and in short supply that commodity is in today's political discourse.Such was the circumstance with the news last week that former Sen. Warren Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire, had died at age 82. The loss of the cofounder of the Concord Coalition, the prominent advocate for comity and thoughtful compromise in the nation's politics, triggered an uncommon outpouring of bipartisan regret and posthumous praise for Rudman's efforts to restore cooperation between the parties.
This Yankee stalwart's Southern Democratic co-chairman of the coalition, former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, saluted him for his determination to work "with members of both parties who were willing to put America's interests first" and "knew America had to face up to our current and long-term fiscal challenges."Another Democrat and former chairman of the coalition, former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, whose failed bid to return to the Senate was backed by Rudman, remembered him as "a leader who always put the nation's interest ahead of politics." The comment could have been directed at the Democrats and Republicans now poised to address the ominous "fiscal cliff" facing Congress before year's end over federal deficit reduction.Rudman himself faced up to a similar threat in the mid-1980s when he joined with fellow Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina to hammer through automatic budget cuts as the deficit rose alarmingly under President Ronald Reagan.For all his support of the Republican president, Rudman took a leading role in criticizing and investigating the Iran-Contra controversy that found the Reagan administration embroiled in the secret, illegal sale of arms to Iran as part of a deal to release American diplomats held hostage in Tehran.Rudman chose to leave the Senate after 1992, writing in his memoir that he "could see the Republican Party gradually being taken over by movement conservatives and self-commissioned Christian soldiers whose social agenda I found repugnant." In later years, he was often called to serve on bipartisan bodies seeking to break through the growing Washington political stalemate.Rudman's death came on the heels of one of the nation's most negative and divisive national elections, in which both parties poured unprecedented millions of dollars into the presidential and congressional campaigns. The flood hardened attitudes on both sides, and it imperils the remaining bipartisanship advocated and practiced by a dwindling number of legislators on Capitol Hill.A combination of deaths, retirements and political defeats to like-minded men and women of moderation, particularly in the Republican Party, has dampened down the prospects of Rudman-type cooperation across the aisle. The retirement of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and the GOP primary election defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana are only the most notable examples of this trend this year.A major political story of the 1960s and 1970s was the demise of liberal Republicanism that marched defiantly if not successfully behind the banner of two New York liberals, Sen. Jacob Javits and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, now no more than a dim memory. The same departure is now underway for moderate Republicanism, with the emergence of the tea party movement and religious fundamentalism in the Grand Old Party.Presidential nominee Mitt Romney flirted early on in his campaign with his party's entrenched conservative wing, which held him hostage in the 2012 party primaries, and then attempted to segue back to his old moderate path in the general election. As a result, a tug of war is going on between conservatives, who blame his loss on the fact that he was not truly and consistently conservative, and the GOP's remaining moderates, who say that the time has come for the party to move to the center.If Warren Rudman were still in the game, he certainly would be in the latter camp. But the issue for him would not be so much ideology as recognition that the times require compromise on each side to move forward. Whether that message will still get through as another "fiscal cliff" approaches is the key question.(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at [email protected].)