Pragmatism


In an Op-ed in today’s Washington Post entitled Where the ‘No Labels’ movement falls short, columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that the left isn’t nearly as distant from the center of the political spectrum as is the right.  Observing that there were few Republicans in attendance he concludes that “No Labelers can yet be a constructive force if they remind us of how extreme the right has become and help broker an alliance between the center and the left, the only coalition that can realistically stop an ever more zealous brand of conservatism.”

As a distinctly left-leaning Democrat, it is not surprising that Mr. Dionne perceives the gap between the center and the left of the Democratic Party to be minimal and gap between the center and the Republican right to be enormous.  He is right that there were few apparent conservative Republicans in attendance.  I didn’t meet any personally while I did meet a number of self-described liberals.  Additionally the Republicans in attendance, such as myself, were almost uniformly moderate Republicans.  I will also concede that there do seem to be more moderate Democrats in America these days than moderate Republicans and more of them were in attendance on Monday.

From my personal perspective, however, in the center right of the spectrum, there is still exits a considerable gap between where I stand politically and both the Democratic left and the Republican right.  I’d be just as conflicted as a moderate Democrat as I am today as a moderate Republican as I find a Henry Waxman every bit as objectionable as I do a Jim DeMint.

This traces without doubt to my political roots.  I was a Democrat as a kid — I was very much a fan of Lyndon Johnson and I was appalled by Barry Goldwater.  I remember at the age of 10 begging my parents to take me to a Republican headquarters where I could guiltily pick up a Goldwater bumper sticker and cut it up so as to create a new bumper sticker that read “Old Wet Rag”.  My disillusionment with the Democratic Party began with the ascension of the left of the party, including  Robert Kennedy and Ed Muskie.  The nomination of George McGovern in 1972 was the final straw for me and I registered as a Republican in 1972 and voted for Richard Nixon.  An activist even then, I became the “Young Voters for the President” Chairman on the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio that year.  I have never since been able to trust the Democratic Party and I remain highly distrustful of the Democratic Party’s extraordinarily influential and left-leaning activist groups (labor, peace, and environmental to name a few).

The fact is that I don’t believe I’ve shifted a great deal politically in my life time.  I was then and am still in the relative center of the spectrum.  As the Republican Party began its shift to the right with Ronald Reagan, I have had a harder and harder time remaining a Republican.  And yes, in many ways I suppose I am a classic Republican In Name Only (RINO), still hoping that sanity will prevail and that the pragmatically conservative Republican Party that I first joined will re-emerge.

In the meantime, I have to find a home in the center and today No Labels is offering me just such a home.  As I expressed in my blog post on Tuesday, it was so refreshing on Monday at the No Labels kickoff to be surrounded by people who thought almost exactly as I did.

And so Mr. Dionne, however you care to label it, No Labels can be a place where centrists can come together to discuss reasonable solutions in the middle of the spectrum and effectively work to support candidates who are willing to craft solutions as unpopular with the far left as the far right.

There were two pieces of note in yesterday’s Washington Post that are broadly in sync with the substance of my last weblog posting and the general sentiments routinely expressed on this website.  The first, by Dan Balz, is entitled Bloomberg appears to be centering himself to run for president in 2012.  The second is by David S. Broder and is entitled Centrist on the rise, discussing the apparently new Barack Obama.

I consider both pieces to be must-reads.  The Broder piece discusses an Obama that seems to finally understand that to win re-election, he must separate himself in the electorate’s mind from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.  This is absolutely right.  This Barack Obama, Mr. Broder suggests, will also have a much better chance of re-election than the one that was shellacked in last month’s election.

This Obama, too, is much less likely to draw a Michael Bloomberg into an independent run for President.  As Mr. Balz points out, Bloomberg apparently needs a weak Obama as well as a Republican opponent from the most conservative wing of the party to enter the presidential contest as a contender.

I’m delighted with both developments.  I am thrilled that Mr. Bloomberg is coming out swinging at our federal governmental dysfunction and contemplating an independent run for President.  I look forward to hearing his comments at the No Labels rollout in New York City on Monday.  I will be there cheering him on.  I am likewise comforted that President Obama may have finally found both his centrist voice and a strategy for success in dealing with his Republican opposition for the next two years.  He needs to challenge the excesses of the Republican right and it is best done from the center of the spectrum.  I am convinced a centrist message will resonate with a vast swath of the American electorate.

An Op-ed in today’s Washington Post offers an example of a mis-guided argument that predictably emanates from the extremes of the partisan spectrum following an election, usually from the party and extreme ideology that has suffered  a big loss.  Today’s example is offered by Michael Lerner in a piece entitled Save Obama’s presidency by challenging him on the left.  Mr. Lerner argues that Obama’s problem is that he hasn’t been “progressive” enough and that it may be necessary to have a Democratic primary challenger from the left in order to force Obama to the left in order to win in 2012.  To those of us in the center of the spectrum, this is utter nonsense.

I’ve rarely witnessed a more clear voter rejection of a party in power, and an ideology, than what occurred in the U.S. in November.  Democrats got shellacked because they were perceived by the electorate as taking the country too far left — in the direction of higher taxes and more government.  That clearly isn’t popular in this country.  Notice I said perceived.  The Republicans did a very good job of painting President Obama and the Democrats into this corner, often inaccurately, but the party itself and its progressive wing aided and abetted.  Nancy Pelosi, Queen of the California’s extremely liberal congressional delegation, was the perfectly wrong choice to be the face of the party.  She is ‘nails on a chalkboard’ to much of America.  In addition, Democrats have puzzled over why the business community and independents supported Republicans as strongly as they did in the election.   Much of the standard Democrat election rhetoric is about class struggle, the little guy against the evil corporate behemoth.  That may sit well with the base of the Democratic Party, but it doesn’t sit well with the majority of Americans.  No, what President Obama and the Democrats need to do for the next two years is appear to the American electorate as the rational, sane and relatively centrist alternative to Republican ideological excess. Democrats’ clearest path to control and the re-election of President Obama is moderation — a la Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom were also constrained by Congresses not in their control and each of whom were re-elected handily.

Republicans, on the other hand, are making a great mistake in their apparent conclusion that it was their conservative ideology that won them election in November.  The reason the electorate voted for them in November was because they weren’t Democrats – they were the “other”, the alternative party.  This was exactly the reason that Democrats, including Obama, won in 2008 — because they were the “other”, the alternative option to George Bush and the Republicans.  These last two elections haven’t been about the electorate supporting a party so much as completely repudiating the party in power.

Thus, the last thing Democrats need to do is up the stakes and offer the electorate a clear picture of a party controlled by left wing ideologues.  Let Republicans hang themselves on their own petard — by viewing that it was their ideology that won them this last election.  The party that grabs the center, that demonstrates to America that it is willing to compromise and to find rational solutions in the middle will be the choice of an electorate that can once again be expected to vote to reject an ideological extreme.

It is my view that 2012 is shaping up as an election that Democrats should win, but it is distinctly losable.  Just consult with Mr. Lerner.  He has the strategy for losing all figured out.

While the Republican Party spends its life in fantasyland (no new taxes, etc.) and welcomes with open arms the delusional tea party movement, the Conservative Party in Britain is going about the task of governing.  Ruth Marcus’ Op-Ed in the Washington Post on Wednesday entitled British Conservatives tackle their fiscal crisis with ‘real’ magic gives us a perspective on how the Conservative Party, through the coalition government it leads, is realistically addressing the big issues facing the United Kingdom.

This call to govern in the United Kingdom, albeit in a coalition government, came because voters decided the nay-saying, fantasyland Conservative Party of yesteryear (almost two decades yesteryear) had learned its lesson andwas ready to govern again.  While the Republican Party may take control of the U.S. House and even, perhaps, the Senate, next month, they are unlikely to capture the White House in 2012 or any time soon unless the Republican Party, like their Conservative Party counterparts in the U.K., is willing to realistically address head-on the serious issues facing the country.  This will require a realistic as opposed to a rigidly ideological mode of governing.  Don’t count on this happening soon here in the U.S.  The GOP needs a decade or two of losing elections, like their Conservative Party counterparts in the U.K., to learn this lesson.

I am a firm believer that the best government is government in the relative center of the political spectrum where one can acknowledge the need for government, and indeed taxes, but actively fight the “liberal” impulse to make government the ultimate solution to every problem.

In an October 2, 2010, Op-Ed in the New York Times entitled Third Party Rising, Thomas L. Friedman hits a nail directly on its head with two primary assertions:  (1) That our government is failing to seriously address the significant crises that beset it, and (2) that we must, as a country, rip open the two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a “serious” third party that will be able to develop rational and centrist public policy with greatly diminished special interest influence.

I couldn’t agree with more with this piece.  In fact, I am making it a mission to identify these groups working on East and West coasts to develop “third parties”.

Let me close with a excerpt that especially resonates with me:

“We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country,” said the Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond. Indeed, our two-party system is ossified; it lacks integrity and creativity and any sense of courage or high-aspiration in confronting our problems. We simply will not be able to do the things we need to do as a country to move forward “with all the vested interests that have accrued around these two parties,” added Diamond. “They cannot think about the overall public good and the longer term anymore because both parties are trapped in short-term, zero-sum calculations,” where each one’s gains are seen as the other’s losses.

Hear, hear!

When Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post speaks, we are wise to listen.  His business commentary is distinctly non-partisan and filled with common sense observations about the state of our economic world.  His piece today in the Washington Post is another must-read.  It is entitled Keeping an open mind on solutions to the budget deficit.

There’s another great piece by David Brooks in the New York Times today.  It’s entitled Taking a Depression Seriously.  He makes a number of dynamite points.  I will note two.  The first is that the Republican approach to the economy has been completely wrong and as a result has amounted to a mere “no” when so much more is needed.  The other is that Democrats, facing the biggest economic crisis in decades, appear to be doing too much else.  Here’s how Brooks puts this latter point:

Democrats apparently think that dealing with the crisis is a part-time job, which leaves the afternoons free to work on long-range plans to reform education, health care, energy and a dozen smaller things.

I agree as I most often do with Brooks.  It is further evidence to me of a broken political system.  On one hand we have Republicans that are so tied into an ideology where’s there is but one solution to everything economic–lowering taxes–that they can’t mount an effective and rational opposition to the Democratic plan.  On the other hand, we have a Democratic Party that has bungled the stimulus by reducing its effectiveness with an liberal Democratic wish list and doesn’t seem to understand that our country has one very major problem–the economy–that needs solving before anything else is tackled.   

We need something in this country to move us off of our present deadlocked course.  I believe what we need is a viable third party or at least a third force, of independents, who could advocate for the rational without concern for party identification or special interests.  I have concluded that it’s the only path forward.  For now, we will muddle along.  Muddling along, however, might just fail us this time.

There are two opinion columns that I put in the must-read category today.  One is Eugene Robinson’s Bending the Trajectory Left in the Washington Post.  The other is David Brooks’ A Moderate Manifesto in the New York Times. 

I am recommending the Eugene Robinson piece as evidence that Barack Obama is not a centrist but a true liberal.  I don’t agree with Mr. Robinson on much of what he says and I certainly don’t share in his all-too-apparent joy in Obama’s liberal trajectory, but I find it a useful articulation of the left of center path this president has chosen to follow.  In light of my previous posting today, which I began before I read either the Robinson or Brooks pieces, it is interesting to read of Obama’s comparison of himself to Ronald Reagan.

I am recommending the Brooks piece because, how do I put this …. because Brooks is absolutely, completely and totally correct.  We do indeed need moderates to step into this fray.  It is moderates that can “tamp down” the extremism that could make Obama’s presidency fail.  And, it could be moderates, if they’re successful, that ultimately make Obama, ala Ronald Reagan, wildly successful.  Moderates, we have reason for being after all.  We can help save Barack Obama from himself.  More importantly, we can help save the country.     

The Senate has begun it’s process of fixing the deeply flawed stimulus bill passed last week by the House of Representatives.  Consensus seems to be growing that the House bill is a dog and must be recast to have both a stronger shot at stimulating the economy and garnering significant bipartisan support.

In a meeting with a number of Democratic lawmakers yesterday, President Obama apparently “took a blunt tone with the lawmakers, urging them to drop whatever needs to be cut from the bill to gain bipartian support and to pass Congress soon”,  so reports the Washington Post in a story today entitled Obama is Upbeat On Stimulus Plan

ABC News’ The Note also reports this morning that it will be centrists in the Senate who will ultimately decide the content and fate of the stimulus bill.  Here’s an excerpt:

Team Obama lost the early battle to define the bill — which has become a pork-stuffed monstrosity, instead of economic salvation wrapped in legislation.

That’s where Senate centrists come in. The loose coalition of lawmakers that are scrubbing the measure with an eye on offering joint amendments — being led by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine — are quickly becoming the group to watch.

They have the votes to exert their will, and that means sorting out spin from reality (or at least their take on it) on a measure that’s easy to hate for its scope, and maybe easier to mock for its specifics.

I am always happy when I see centrists exerting their potentially considerable influence.  I know that when they do, ideology and partisan fervor will take a back seat to pragmatic policy-making.  This is what has needed to happen since Pelosi and her crew got the first cut at the bill. 

The slower Senate process is also allowing for greater scrutiny and thought to be given to particular provisions of the House bill.  As I argued last week, this is too important a bill to rush.  While we should slow this process down even further if we’re to avoid all of the boondoggles, fortunately this additional scrutiny and thought is showing us at least some of the flaws.  One such flaw, in my opinion, concerns the House bill’s mandate that billions of dollars be spent to expand broadband internet service to rural and otherwise under-served America.  While important, we need to make certain that any such program is done right.  This is discussed in an excellent article in the New York Times today entitled Internet Money In Fiscal Plan: Wise or Waste?  Here’s an excerpt:

But experts warn that the rural broadband effort could just as easily become a $9 billion cyberbridge to nowhere, representing the worst kind of mistakes that lawmakers could make in rushing to approve one of the largest spending bills in history without considering unintended results.

“The first rule of technology investment is you spend time understanding the end user, what they need and the conditions under which they will use the technology,” said Craig Settles, an industry analyst and consultant who has studied broadband applications in rural and urban areas. “If you don’t do this well, you end up throwing millions or, in this case, potentially billions down a rat hole. You will spend money for things that people don’t need or can’t use.”

Dozens of programs included in the stimulus measure could entail a similarly complicated cost-benefit analysis. But with Congress and the White House intent on adopting the economic recovery package by the end of next week, taxpayers are unlikely to find out whether these programs are great investments or a total waste — or something in between — until long after the money is out the door.     

Let me close by linking to another advocate of slowing this stimulus train down a bit, again to make sure we get the most bang for the extraordinarily large bucks.   He is Richard Cohen of the Washington Post in his column today entitled $100 Billion and No Change Back.  He points out that the funds heading to the Department of Education are going with no “reform” strings attached and he argues that we are losing an incredible opportunity to make a difference.  Slowing the train down can give us the time to do it right.  I agree with him completely.

So, let’s hope that the slower train that is the United States Senate slows down even further and allows more input that makes this bill as good as we can get it before it goes to the President’s desk for signature.  Getting a bill in the middle of February is less important that getting it right.  A few more weeks is not going to matter if we can do a much better job.