Centrism


In the week since the No Labels roll out in New York City, there has been no shortage of critics.  That’s being interpreted by most of us involved in the movement as being a good thing.  No Labels is obviously ruffling a few feathers in both ideological extremes.

I’ve already commented upon the critique by Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. in my blog posting of December 16 entitled Finding a Home in the Political Center.  His piece was entitled Where the ‘No Labels’ movement falls short.

Also weighing in from the left, from last weekend in the New York Times, was Frank Rich in an Op-ed entitled The Bipartisanship Racket.

On the right, perspectives were offered by both Rush Limbaugh on his radio show and George F. Will in an Op-ed in the Washington Post entitled The Political Fantasyland of the ‘No Labels’ movement.  It is clear that No Labels has managed to push a few buttons.  I’m glad we are.

The extremes don’t really believe we have a “dysfunctional” government in America.  Each side is only too pleased to be engaged in rugged combat with their opposite ideological enemy, firmly convinced that they are right and that their side will ultimately prevail.  It’s nonsense of course.  In the meantime, serious crises facing the country go unaddressed and Americans lose faith in their government by the day.  This can’t continue.

While No Labels may not in the end solve anything, I think we owe it a chance to work – to change the game enough to break the current deadlock.  If No Labels can indeed mobilize the “silent majority” to actively involve itself in the next few election cycles, there is every reason to believe we can halt the trend toward hyper-partisanship in both parties.  Time will tell, of course.  Count me among those that are willing to make this effort.  We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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.

I attended the No Labels kickoff yesterday in New York City.  Stories on the event can be found in both the Washington Post (here and here) and the New York Times – the NY Times piece is more of a story on conference participant Michael Bloomberg.

It is hard to express how great the experience was for me.  The crowd was enthusiastic and the speakers almost uniformly excellent.  It was also gratifying to again be around people again with whom I felt I was in sync.  Although I’m still a registered Republican, most Republicans that I meet are far more conservative than I am.  That means that in a group of Republicans I often don’t feel very “at home” for while I agree with the Republican Party on many issues, I am finding it harder and harder to agree with the party a host of others.  I also have particular problems with the party’s apparent 2+ year “no compromise” strategy.  No compromise = Dysfunctional government.  As a country we must agree to talk and compromise.  It is the only way forward.

In the coming days, I hope I can provide links to the remarks of several of yesterday’s speakers, including New York Times columnist David Brooks. Congressmen Bob Inglis’ remarks were also especially relevant and poignant as were those of Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ.  Additionally, the panel discussion led by Mika Brzezinski was particularly good.  The panel included Joe Scarborough, Senator Evan Bayh, Senator Joe Manchin and David Gergen.

In closing, let me repeat the comments that I made today to a Washington Post story entitled Can ‘No Labels’ change the tone in Washington?:

I am writing this from New York City where I yesterday attended the No Labels kickoff as a “Citizen Leader”. I have lived in Washington DC since 1987. In my 23 years in Washington I have seen the political system cease to work. I have also seen my Republican Party drift further and further to the right and the Democratic Party remain largely under the control of its liberal wing and its host of special interest groups. Neither side is is willing to compromise and the last three elections have shown an electorate punishing the party in control, yet the two parties continue to miss the point.

No Labels as a collection of mostly moderate Democrats, Republicans and Independents can change the game by applying pressure from the center of the spectrum, mostly in influencing primary elections but also in mobilizing support for candidates who take courageous stands. We can also influence redistricting processes in the states, which has the potential to enormously impact the ability of both parties to maintain their duopoly.

I will be actively involved with No Labels in Washington DC, starting with hosting a Meet Up on January 4. DC area voters interested in learning more and go to meetup.com/no labels for more information.

Please join our movement to move the country not left or right, but forward. Help end the hyper-partisan dysfunction.

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.

Expect to hear a lot from me in the coming weeks about No Labels.  A posting on this weblog in mid-October introduced readers to the group.  To refresh, No Labels is a grassroots organization of people who believe we should “Put Labels Aside” and “Do What’s Best for America”.  We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America.  I will be attending the national kickoff for No Labels in New York City on December 13 and will make an effort to post on the event in real time from New York.

In the last few weeks there has been growing national publicity about No Labels, including an excellent Op-ed in this mornings Washington Post by William A. Galston and David Frum entitled A no labels solution to Washington gridlock.  I recommend the piece.

Also, for those of you in Washington, DC, I am hosting a Meet Up on January 4, 2010 (at a location still to be determined) to meet and discuss No Labels.  We’ll talk about the December 13 National No Labels Kickoff in NYC and what those of us in DC can do to advance the No Labels agenda.  You can sign up for the Washington DC event here.

For those of you in other parts of the country, there are Meets Up planned in early January in a number of locales.  See the No Labels website for details.

In a story today in the Daily Caller, Alex Pappis reports on a conversation he had with Matt Kibbe, a key operative in the FreedomWorks organization that was an important supporter of tea party candidates in 2010.  Needless to say tea party conservatives aren’t very pleased with the apparent write-in victory of Lisa Murkowski in Alaska.  Here’s an excerpt from the Daily Caller story:

If Murkowski wins, Kibbe suggested that Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and the Republican leadership should find a way to punish her, perhaps through committee assignments, “for splitting the team in half” and running as an independent. Her decision to run as an independent is a dangerous precedent, Kibbe suggested, that could lead to Democratic victories in the future.

“If he doesn’t do that,” Kibbe said, “it strikes me that he’s sending a signal to Tea Partiers in 2012 that if they don’t like the results in the primaries, they might as well just run as an independent or Tea Party candidate.”

Kibbe often makes the argument that “it doesn’t make any sense to go third party because third party loses,” [sic] and the more practical way for Tea Party activists to get involved is through a “take over” of the GOP.

Let me respond to each paragraph above in turn:

1.  Great.  Punish Senator Murkowski and push her more firmly into the independent camp.  I’d like that — it’s where she needs to be anyway and it will just make it easier for her.  Also, since when have true-blue conservatives cared whether Democrats win elections when the Republican candidate is an infidel (moderate Republican).  This is exemplified by the apparently prevalent conservative belief that “we are better off electing a Democrat than a Republican such as Mike Castle as Senator from Delaware”.

2.  Great.  Please do that.  I would be delighted should hard-line conservatives leave the GOP and run as independents.  Such a move would allow the Republican Party to abandon the right and move into the “center-right” space that happens to be where most of the American electorate sits.  I could see a long string of wins for such a Republican Party at all levels of government.

3.  I have to first do a little interpolating on this paragraph.  I presume the sentiment being expressed by Mr. Kibbe is that since third parties usually lose, it is better for tea party conservatives to take over the Republican Party.  This is nothing new.  It is certainly what I’ve observed conservatives to have been doing for decades (1976 insurrection against moderate Gerald Ford by Reagan Republicans was my first exposure to this strategy).  I’d go so far to say the battle for the GOP is over.  The hard-line conservatives have won.  Independents need to either form a third party comprised of independents and center-right “moderate” Republicans or be willing to run as independents a la Lisa Murkowski in Alaska.  While it is clear that while write-in campaigns can prevail, it would make much more sense for centrist independents to found independent parties in their states so as to give centrist voters a choice between the left and the right.

So Mr. Kibbe, make up your mind.  Personally, I hope you all choose Option #2.  I would love to have my Republican Party back and so I think would most of the country.

Dear Senator Murkowski.

I’m writing just to let you know how proud I am of you.  Maybe pride isn’t the right word here, but you are doing what I hope I would do in the same circumstances.  You are following your own light.  You are speaking your truth.  You had the courage, as some others lacked, to stay in the fight.  And you won.  Hallelujah.

Your win is an incredible gift to a country that so needs someone who can stand, even if just a little, on the outside of the duopolistic system that’s evolved; someone who isn’t blinded by party loyalty and is thus able to see things as they are.  America isn’t predominantly right wing or left wing, but center right and center left.  And you and I both know that the solutions to most of America’s most serious problems can be found in that place, where rigid ideology can take a back seat to problem-solving.

Let’s take climate change.  You are right, of course, that there is scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is impacting the planet’s climate.  It may not be the calamity some are predicting, but then again it could be.  We just don’t know that yet.  What is clear is the activities of mankind are having an impact and something needs to be done.  I applaud you for not only recognizing this but having been willing to act.  It was a courageous and principled stand.

We both also know that, fantasies aside, the country is going to be using massive quantities of fossil fuels for decades to come.  With a balance of trade deficit as high as it is and with U.S. environmental standards in the world’s top tier, we need to be producing as much of those fossil fuels as possible here at home – oil and natural gas.  We can do it better than most countries and keep American jobs and dollars in America.  In this tough economic environment what better stimulus than putting Americans to work producing American resources.  Every barrel we don’t produce here must come from somewhere else.  We must also put an end to the delusion that hydraulic fracturing – a process critical to producing world class quantities of natural gas in this country – is a a threat to America’s water resources.  This has been a sub-myth of the myth that if we make it harder to produce fossil fuels in America it will move us to the renewable energy future faster.  We both know it won’t.  Yet we know that renewable energy future is important and is deserving of support.

In closing let me again reiterate my pride in you.  Perhaps part of this pride is that I first met you when you were a state legislator and you attended a program I was giving on the subject of “states and oil and natural gas”.  We talked and I’ve watched and been mightily impressed by your career ever since.  You have been a great Senator and I predict that now you can be an even greater Senator should you be willing to carry your hard-won independence into the U.S. Senate and speak truth to duopolistic power.  I recognize that you may need to bargain away some of that independence in order to again become Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but you should nonetheless cherish the independent mantle you’ve earned.  You can become what Senator McCain never really was but claimed to be.  The Senate and indeed America needs a true maverick voice.

I hope you can be that voice.  You will have my full support.

Kevin Bliss

Washington, DC

It seems as good a time as any to reflect briefly on the recent election and the myths that have developed as to the reasons for the Democrats’ “shellacking”.

Among Democrats of the liberal variety, I’m seeing all too many who fault the President and Democrats for not going far enough:  there should have been a larger stimulus; we shouldn’t have compromised on health care; and “cap and trade” was the right thing to do.  And yes, Nancy Pelosi was brilliant and did nothing wrong.

I personally believe that the public was never overwhelmingly against any of these three major Democratic initiatives.   With the exception of cap and trade, which was always in my opinion the coward’s way out and not the best means to address climate change, the other two initiatives were necessary.  However, both of these necessary initiatives, stimulus and health care reform, were very poorly executed and that poor execution left a sour taste with people – a sour taste that was remembered on election day.  The public was simply exhausted and disgusted by the never-ending debate of a health care bill where no one, least not the President, seemed in charge.  As for the stimulus, I think people remembered how blatantly the Democratic congressional leadership administered favors to political constituencies rather than just executing a bill that got the biggest bang for the buck.

More simply put, the process destroyed the products.  Yet my fundamental point is that the electorate’s massive negative reaction in just-concluded election was not about any one of the above things.  It was, however, about a cumulative impression of one-party dominated processes that involved some really ugly sausage making.  That in turn left a cumulative impression with much of the electorate that the country was left with legislation that nobody understood, cost a whole lot of money, and massively increased the role of government in our lives.  And, perhaps most importantly, the economy still sucked.

In the midst of gigantic collective anxiety about the economy, the perception of a massive government expansion as being the cure for what ailed the country did not work.  In fact it raised the reddest of flags to an insecure nation, an insecure “center-right” nation.

So what it appears that Democrats intend to do to remedy things in the next Congress is to entrust the party’s message going forward to none other than the folks who so badly bungled things in the last two years:  Obama, Pelosi and Reed.  I think this a huge mistake for Democrats.  A softer and more “centrist” face would be much more effective in opposing the almost certain Republican-dominated policy folly that’s coming — that folly being the ultra conservative notion that by shrinking the government and lowering taxes we can solve all of the country’s problems.  We can’t.  Yet with the Democrat’s proposed messengers, the debate will polarize into  “More Government” versus “No Government”.  This is so unnecessary.   While I see no signs that Republicans will amend their “no government message, the Democrats can still alter their message, but they will need new messengers in the both the House and Senate to accomplish this.

I can only hope Democrats in Congress will yet decide that new leadership is required in the next Congress.   Let Democrats lose the fallacious belief that party hasn’t been liberal enough.  The party needs to recognize that America isn’t ready for a European-style social democracy.  So go ahead and pursue “liberal” policies – that is the essence of the Democratic Party — but do so incrementally.   And for now, occupy the center ground that’s been abandoned by the Republicans.

In closing let me observe that while each party is right to try to move the country in the direction it thinks the country should go, the problem arises when either party becomes too impatient and wants to change the status quo overnight.  American’s don’t like radical change and will resist what they perceive efforts to legislate such radical change (the November elections).  The solution is a slow but steady movement firmly rooted in the “center” ground.  I’m convinced it would be a winning strategy for any party that chooses to adopt it.  Given that Republicans appear to believe that they now have a mandate for radical change, the obvious path for Democrats is to learn from the last two years and adopt a more moderate path – a path that recognizes its priorities but also one that can resonate with a centrist America.

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.

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