Political Polarization Underscores Lee, Raggio, Supercommittee Moves

Reports appeared almost simultaneously about state Sen. John Lee, D-Clark County,  deciding to run for re-election instead of for the House, a new book celebrating the life of former state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Washoe County, and the congressional supercommittee’s failure to find a way to cut the deficit. These events took place without any connection, but they are related.

Lee told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “You have to be in Congress for three or four terms before you can actually work on Nevada issues,” which must be news to everybody in the state’s congressional delegation. Naturally, speculation pointed to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as having subtly or not-so-subtly made clear to Lee that he needed to get out.

This is doubtful because it probably was unnecessary. Lee is one of the legislature’s most conservative Democrats, and trumpets his leanings—and more power to him. His would-be opponent in the House primary, state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Clark County, is more liberal, and that resounds more with the party’s base—just as the only announced Republican candidate in that race, Barbara Cegavske, R-Clark County, leans so far to the right that she meets the far left coming around, making her appealing to the GOP base.

Horsford angered some of the base during the last session—he made all of the right noises but didn’t get a lot of what he really wanted in the end (nor could he have), and the occasional outright mistake. That said, for rank-and-file Democrats, he’s far more solid on the issues than Lee, and his four years as leader have given him more chits to call in than Lee has.

Horsford may well be the better candidate, but Lee’s fate is related to the other items mentioned above. If you went back to the Nevada Legislature in, say, 1973, when Raggio first entered the state Senate and the Democratic advantage was 17-3.  Unlike today, Lee wouldn’t have been the most conservative Democrat in his caucus.  Horsford might be considered liberal now, but in 1973, the only state senator who would have been more liberal than he is would have been just this side of his predecessor in his district, Joe Neal. 

Raggio resigned from the state Senate early this year, citing health reasons.  That was partly true. He was sick of his caucus, and they were sick of him. He endorsed Harry Reid’s Senate re-election last year rather than support Sharron Angle because he and Angle had personal differences; she didn’t strike him as having behaved as a public servant should; and he felt she would be terrible for Nevada. So his caucus planned to remove him as leader. He resigned instead, and some former colleagues and too many rank-and-file dismiss him as a RINO—Republican In Name Only—although he was considered right wing when they were in diapers.

It raises the question of whether politicians have changed or their constituents have changed. The answer is, yes. The Republican base certainly is more vocally conservative than it was when Raggio started out. Whether the Democratic base is more liberal might be debated—that was the year after George McGovern lost the presidential race to the ostensibly right-wing Richard Nixon.

More to the point, whether in Washington, D.C., or in Nevada, politicians didn’t face scrutiny from 24/7 cable news or the Internet. They didn’t come home each weekend—but when those in Carson City did, it was different from today.  Hal Smith, a Republican legislator from Henderson, once recalled how half a dozen lawmakers might pile into a big car to drive back to Southern Nevada.  Thrown together in such close quarters for so long—he might have a liberal Democrat on his lap—they had to get along.

Meanwhile, the supercommittee couldn’t work it out, and the Republican co-chair from the House said before this, he wouldn’t have known the Democratic co-chair from the Senate, but at least now he does.  Whether it’s conservative Democrat John Lee, suddenly liberal Republican Bill Raggio, or the supercommittee, we get the government we elect.