In today’s political environment–at least on the GOP side–“moderate” has become a pejorative.  With the same venom that Nixon used to denounce Communists–real or imagined–Newt Gingrich has leveled the “moderate” charge against Mitt Romney.  This says a whole lot about what is wrong with politics and governance these days.

The attributes that make government work–pragmatism, compromise, collegiality, civility and cooperation–are derided, not valued in the political arena.  Today’s candidates seem to be driven to be shrill and unbending.  Politicians who back themselves into rhetorical corners during the campaign are then hamstrung when they are elected–ending up looking like incompetents and/or hypocrites. This is all reinforced by the cult-like pressures of party caucuses in the legislative branch.

None of this is new.  In the 1960s, Barry Goldwater said famously that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” Of course, Goldwater mellowed over the years, while Gingrich just seems to have festered.  On the Democratic side of the aisle, Texas populist Jim Hightower used to say “There’s nothing in the middle of the road, but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”

With the proliferation of blogs, cable scream fests  and political narrow-casting,  the “my way or the highway” culture has intensified.  The endless series of Republican presidential debates has become an unfunny circus where facts are twisted or invented and responsibility is checked at the door.  Poor Jon Huntsman was the only candidate who spoke up–somewhat meekly–for science and it got him nowhere.  Even if Newt Romney survives the nomination process, he will be saddled with public positions likely to turn off independent and swing voters.

All this has consequences.  We have seen the gridlock that has devolved California government and left the GOP as the largest of the state’s minor parties.  At the national level it seems  there is nothing likely to be said or done that will pave the way for rational approaches to dealing with very real challenges–reining in public debt, realigning the tax system,  making needed infrastructure investments, assuring the long term viability of Social Security and Medicare,  fine-tuning health care reform, crafting a sane immigration policy and exercising responsible stewardship of the environment.  These are issues that aren’t helped by populist pandering or partisan posturing.

California may offer a ray of hope.   Governor Jerry Brown seems to be gradually getting traction with his no frills approach to the State’s budget ills.  Grouchy Democrats have gone along with severe program cuts and voters seem poised to bite the bullet on some tax increases, even though the Republicans in the Legislature haven’t budged.  California’s new open primary system will, hopefully,  give an advantage to candidates who can appeal to independents and other more moderate voters.  When things get bad enough, maybe the public will reach the point there reality sets in.

In the meantime, at the national level, we can expect a bumpy ride as long as  politics continues to veer off the road  and onto the rough shoulders.