Centrism


While I was off introspecting this summer, something stunning was happening in American politics.  Conservative Republicans were being rejected by Republican voters in primaries and caucuses across the country:  Bob Bennett (UT), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mike Castle (DE).  Charlie Crist would surely have lost the Republican primary had he not opted to run as an independent first.  These conservative Republicans were beat because they were not conservative enough.  They were too “moderate” for the Republican rank and file.

The extent of this lunacy is well-described by Dana Milbank in an October 6 Op-Ed in the Washington Post entitled Who’s a real conservative?  It’s all relative. I consider this a must-read.

It helps explain why I am not longer a real Republican.  If there is no place in the party for folks who are with you two-thirds of the time, there is no place in the party for a relative centrist such as myself.  And it speaks to a very dangerous America in the years ahead when our two parties are so ideologically distant.  Nothing that this country so urgently needs to do will be done, as Thomas Friedman so eloquently pointed out in his October 2 New York Times Op-Ed, discussed and linked in one of my blog postings yesterday.

What I am pleased about is that Senator Murkowski and Governor Crist have opted to run as independents.  Fantastic.  My hope would be that they would choose not to align with either party and start building a third party base in their home states.  I think there would be enormous freedom in not having to pander to either party’s ideological base.  The country would undoubtedly benefit as we’d likely see more common sense and rationality emanating from at least two U.S. Senators.  I regret that Mike Castle declined to also run as an independent.  He would have been a great U.S. Senator, especially if freed from the need to pander to his party’s right wing.

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!

On the eve of the election in Great Britain there were two Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post that I regarded as worthwhile reading. They were Mark Penn’s A new wind in politics and David S. Broder’s A test of two parties.  While Nick Clegg’s Liberal  Democrat Party didn’t do nearly as well as predicted (an understatement), it looks like it will still play the role of kingmaker. That is hopefully good news for those of us who believe that two-party rule is failing in the modern world to move policy in the right direction.

Let this also announce my complete and total endorsement of Charlie Crist’s run as an independent for U.S. Senator from Florida.  Two-party rule must be broken.

In a follow-on to yesterday’s posting, there are two additional pieces today, both in the New York Times, that address the Republican Party’s identity crisis.  The first is a front page article, above the fold, by Adam Nagourney and David M. Herszenhorn entitled G.O.P. Debate: A Broader Party or a Purer One? The other is on Op-ed by former Governor (and EPA Administrator) Christine Todd Whitman entitled It’s Still My Party.

I am convinced the Republican Party’s only path forward is to become a party that can not only tolerate a variety of perspectives, but can accommodate those perspectives in its platform and in the way it governs.  Frankly, I don’t see this happening for a while.

My history as a Republican goes back 37 years.  Although I’d always identified as a child as a Democrat, I was a Scoop Jackson or moderate Democrat, at least on defense issues.  When the party rejected Scoop Jackson for the presidential nomination in 1972 and nominated George McGovern, my path forward was clear.  I was able to comfortably remain a Republican up through the George W. Bush’s first term, although the Reagan ascendancy was a mighty challenge.  When the conservatives began to exert control of the party in 1976 when Reagan challenged President Ford for the Republican nomination, I first witnessed the ‘purist’ wing of the party in action.  At my local ward meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I saw the purists in action for the first time as they showed up in droves and defeated the Ford slate.  At the state party convention the purists would later deny slots on the state’s delegation to the national convention to New Mexico’s sitting Republican Congressmen and Senator, who had all supported Gerald Ford.  Four years later I held my nose and voted for Reagan and, to my surprise, I did come to regret that decision.  I even served as an Reagan alternate delegate from New Mexico to the 1984 GOP convention.  What was notable was that although I was viewed then within the delegation as a “moderate”, that was still apparently OK.  It isn’t today in most places.

In her Op-ed Christine Todd Whitman argues that it’s important that “moderates to stay [in the party] and work from within. One thing we can be sure of is that we will have no impact on the party’s direction if we leave.”  She goes on to observe that “[t]o the extent we lose more members of the Republican Party, we lose what ability we have left to affect policy, and that is going to be devastating to our nation. Our democracy desperately needs two vibrant parties.”

Although I may not change my party registration, I am functionally an Independent these days, for the party has left me and the things it once stood for.  It has become something else with which I rarely identify.  At this juncture I am also tired of doing battle with the purists.  I am of the mind that the only way the purists are going to learn their lesson is the hard way in a succession of devastating losses.  Either that, or, the purist Republican Party needs to be isolated with the formation of a new political party in the center.  I agree with Christine Todd Whitman that it will be devastating for the country to have one-party rule.  But that doesn’t mean that second party needs to be the Republican Party.  Let’s get a third party in the mix that can draw moderate Democrats and Republicans and challenge both the left and the right of the political spectrum.  Let the Republican Party stay pure and let’s give the Democratic Party to Nancy Pelosi and her friends on the left.  Let the rest of us join and belong to a brand new party.

That would be my choice, although it’s been pretty clear to me since I started this ‘centrist’ blog, that there been no groundswell of people who agree with me.  Certainly moderate Democrats are not disaffected at present with a capable President who’s steering a relatively moderate course.  And Independents seem to like the middle ground and the ability to move back and forth as they see fit.

So for now I must just watch the show from the sidelines, the show being the Republican Party’s process of trying to make itself relevant again.  What I know is that I have no intention of being part of the process.  I’m tired of tilting at windmills.

My first reaction when I read that Senator Specter was to become a Democrat was shock.  I hadn’t thought he’d take such a radical step.  Make no mistake, in America changing one’s party is a radical action.  I had thought that perhaps he’d become an Independent – a far easier step along the continuum of politics.  No, he had decided to make the full leap.

As I’ve had a day to think about it and to read the numerous stories and commentary in the Washington Post and the New York Times, it’s made more sense to me.  For readers who aren’t regular readers of this blog, I, like Senator Specter, sit in a place on the political spectrum that is hard to categorize–liberal on this issue, conservative on that, and, often, very centrist.  Yet I would have a lot of trouble becoming a Democrat.  I would have trouble for the same reasons I have trouble any longer calling myself a Republican.  Each party has wings and viewpoints with which I am in vehement disagreement.  For me, it is merely trading one set of issues with which I agree/disagree for another.  For Senator Specter, however, it would appear that in his calculation it was what will be necessary for political survival.

While I’d have preferred he become an Independent and run as an Independent in Pennsylvania in 2010, he obviously calculated that such a move would unlike result in his re-election.  Instead of one one party opposing him, he’d have two.  And since it seems our system is such that unless you’re either a Republican or a Democrat you don’t have much chance of being elected in America, one must chose one party or the other if one hopes to be elected to public office.

For the time being I don’t have that dilemma.  I can be an Independent.  Still, I would very much like to create a middle-of-the-spectrum party that would have a chance of seriously playing in the political game with the big two.  It would reform the big two like nothing else I can think of.

In a Washington Post editorial this morning entitled Aisle Crosser, there is a quote of Senator Lieberman, a rare elected Independent.  Here’s what he’s quoted as saying:  “You know, it’s good for the Democratic Party, bad for the Republican Party that Arlen Specter left them and joined the Democratic caucus.  But you know what? Overall, it’s not great for American politics, because both parties should have moderate or centrist wings in them that . . . [create] more opportunity for common ground and less partisanship.” 

I couldn’t agree more.  In an ideal world Arlen Specter could have remained a Republican and still been renominated by his party.  This isn’t an ideal world.  He would have been beaten by a conservative ideologue in the Republican primary.  Personally, I would like to remain a Republican and fight for a more moderate party.  However, I don’t see that happening in the next decade.  So Specter is going to seek his home as a Democrat and I will seek mine as an Independent.

My hope is, as unideal as this situation is, that Senator Specter can and will remain a voice of moderation and principal in his new party.  My hope is that he can try to pull Democrats to the right more successfully than he was able to pull Republicans left.  I actually think he’ll have better luck.  Smart Democrats realize that the secret of winning elections is drawing in the center.  Republicans are, as I indicated above, a decade of losing elections (hopefully) away from learning this lesson.  In the meantime we have to hope the Democrats don’t head full-tilt left and contribute to a Republican win before they’ve learned their lessons.  Then we’re all in real trouble.

In closing let me recommend another two pieces on this topic, this first from the New York Times.  It is by Senator Olympia Snowe and it’s entitled We Didn’t Have to Lose Arlen Specter.  Also well worth reading is this New York Times blog by David Brooks and Gail Collins entitled Specter, At Least for Now.

    

As readers will know, I believe that the biggest threat to a successful Obama presidency lies in Nancy Pelosi and her House of Representatives.  Their full-left tilt, if left unchecked, will mean measures more extreme than are both wise for the country and sound politics for Democrats and especially Obama.  Politically, too far left means the Democrats give Republicans the amunition to potentially scuttle Obama initiatives and perhaps even alter the composition of the House and Senate over 4 years.  The good news is that there are mechanisms to neutralize Ms. Pelosi and her band of liberal brothers.  One of these is called the United States Senate.  For the good of the country, the Senate is almost always the more deliberative and cautious body.  Even better is when you have moderates of either party in the Senate working for reasonable compromise.  We saw it in the last administration when a number of Republicans joined with Democrats to defuse “the nuclear option” threatened by harder core Republicans in response to Democratic foot dragging on the confirmation of federal court nominations.  We are also fortunately seeing it in this administration and this piece in yesterday’s Washington Post by Senators Evan Bayh, Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln called Building Bridges on the Hill informs us as to why they believe that moderates working together is a good thing.  Here’s an excerpt:  

As moderate leaders, it is not our intent to water down the president’s agenda. We intend to strengthen and sustain it. Moderation is not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake. Practical solutions are practical because they offer our best chance to make a difference in people’s lives today without forcing our children to pick up the tab tomorrow.

As a centrist, or “moderate”, I could not agree with the words above more.  Moderation is absolutely not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake.  What it is about is finding rational solutions that work irrespective of party and party politics.  That is the core message of this blog–its raison d’etre.  Thank you Senators for attempting to give it life in the United States Senate.

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.     

There are a number of ways to judge the success of a presidency.  There is the historical perspective that takes a great many decades to determine with any accuracy.  There is whether the president was able to win re-election, always an important indicator of success.  And, there is whether, when the president is term-limited, the country swings wildly in the opposite political direction when picking the president’s successor.  It is possible, as we’ve just seen, for a president to win re-election yet leave office with abysmally low ratings and a successor that stands for just about everything that he didn’t.  In President Bush’s case, I would argue that his winning re-election was not so much an indicator of his popularity or “success”, but a complete lack of enthusiasm for his opponent.  The Democrats in John Kerry simply didn’t give the country a choice it found acceptable–better the devil you know.  That Bush left office deeply unpopular and with a successor who is his polar opposite in almost every way–personality, intellect, political philosophy–says something about how deeply unpopular, and I would argue “successful” George W. Bush was.

Having last week finally seen the complete unveiling of Barack Obama–no, not a centrist but a true blue Democratic liberal–it is interesting to speculate on how the American public is ultimately going to judge its new leader.  The 2010 mid-term elections will give us a first indication.  Then will come the 2012 general election.  Finally, should Obama be re-elected in 2012, there will be the election of his successor in 2016.

I’m not going to speculate on outcome.  I have no clue at this point.  I am going to suggest scenarios, however, that may give us some indicators.  Let me start by observing that it is entirely possible that by 2012 the bloom will be off the Obama rose but that the Republicans will still be in such philosophical disarray (which includes, in my book, clinging to the southern conservative model of Republicanism) that anyone the Republicans select will be doomed, ala John Kerry in 2004.  Of course, if Obama is despised at that point, which I doubt, it could be that almost any Republican could be elected.  Let’s hope this is not the case for the sake of our country.

Another scenario is to posit Barack Obama as the Democratic Ronald Reagan.  By this I mean a someone who, while clearly a darling of the ideological extremes of his party, is also able to capture a significant amount of independents and centrist members of the opposing party.  To accomplish this it is important that one be charismatic (check), a great communicator (check), and I would argue one more thing.  It will take someone who while talking enough of line to appease his ideological base, delivers policies that are mainstream enough that they don’t alienate the center, where the majority of American electorate resides (unknown).

Now this is where it gets tricky with Barack Obama.  He has announced to the delight of his party’s liberal base a very “liberal” agenda.  How will centrist America take to this?  I would argue that one thing that Ronald Reagan had going for him, that Obama does not, was a Congress that was never entirely in his camp.  In other words, Ronald Reagan never experienced having a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate.  While he had the Senate eventually, he never had a Republican House majority.  I would argue that this required him to moderate his course and deliver a product that was less ideologically conservative than it might otherwise have been and than what he might otherwise have preferred.  Given that most of the electorate is in the center of the political spectrum, this need to moderate arguably inured to Reagan’s political advantage.  Ronald Reagan both won a resounding re-election campaign in 1984 and left office in 1988 highly popular, replaced by his vice-president.

Using the Ronald Reagan model, Barach Obama doesn’t have the barrier (I would also say “advantage”) that Ronald Reagan had.  Unlike Reagan, Obama has healthy majorities in both the House and the Senate.  The only thing he does have that is arguably somewhat similar is a non-filibuster proof Senate.  That could well yet serve him well by holding him back from delivering a more liberal ideological product than he might prefer, but it could also save his political neck.  Since it is less of an obstacle than was Ronald Reagan’s obstacle, it may, however, prove less beneficial.

Of course, a third alternative exists.  America is indeed ready to make a major political shift from center-right to left/center-left.  This could be aided by an economy that is among the worst in the country’s history.  This will depend upon when the economy recovers and which party gets the credit.

I am disinclined to believe the American electorate is radically re-aligning itself to the left.  It will tolerate health care reform and education reform, but only so long as it delivers, on budget.  It will not tolerate huge deficits and massive new unfunded entitlement programs.  It will not tolerate massive new taxes, including taxes masquerading as greatly higher bills for electricity caused by an ill-conceived cap and trade system.  It will also tire of energy program that fails to accomplish its stated objectives (likely, as I pointed out in my posting yesterday).

The bottom line is that this story has yet to unfold.  It could go in many ways.  It will interestingto watch.  It will also be scary, as the country has so much at stake.  Had this been normal times, with an economy that was anywhere withing the range of normal, this liberal experiment that Obama’s proposing might have been an interesting and valuable exercise for the country.  In times of economic crisis, it seems rash and dangerous.  Let’s hope for the best case scenario, for failure could be unthinkably bad.  Let’s hope that Barack Obama does, indeed, turn out to be a liberal Ronald Reagan.

First the speech, now the budget.  We’re beginning to see that Obama is no centrist after all.  His agenda is distinctly to the left of left of center and he’s not an incrementalist.  He’s setting about to change America radically and fast.

America needs change.  The problem is that our choice for political leadership in this country is between a hyperactive Democratic Party with a leftist agenda and tired and worn out Republican Party with a right wing, moralistic, and arguable overly-free market agenda.  The fact remains that there exists a huge amount of real estate between the two extremes, real estate upon which I would argue America would be better building its future home the than real estate being proposed by the two American parties.  And today, one party is in control and it is on their real estate that the we’re proposing to build.

What concerns me the most about Obama’s proposals is the relative lack of thought and preparation that is behind them.  He has produced all of this in just one month!  Echoing what David Brooks observes in his column in the New York Times today (The Uncertain Trumpet) Obama is merely laying out a conceptual framework for the future but he is leaving it to others to work out the details.  That’s dangerous when the others are Congressional leadership dominated by Nancy Pelosi Democrats.  I am concerned that facts (rationality) will play too small a role and leftist ideology to large a role as laws are passed and programs are initiated to build on the Obama conceptual framework.  Likening policy to a road map, it needs to be based upon reality in order to deliver us to the desired destination.  If based on fantasy, it is unlikely to lead us to where we want to go.  Reality and rationality must trump shallow and overly-idealistic ideology.  

I will keep returning to energy as an example as, substantively, I know it best.  On energy, the budget is very “command and control” and sets about picking winners and losers.  One loser appears to be all things “oil and gas”.  A first glimpse at Obama’s energy budget reveals that he proposes elimination of almost every incentive for domestic oil and natural gas production on the books.  It also appears to eliminate all oil and natural gas research and development.  This is not wise when the American economy is dependent upon foreign oil to fuel an economy that will not even under the most optimistic scenarios be able to wean itself from oil for transportation for decades.  Complex issues require complex solutions.  It doesn’t appear we’re going to get them from Obama.  He’s too busy painting colorful conceptual murals of the America he envisions and leaving it to others to try to turn that fantasy into reality.

In Obama’s defense, I suspect most of the “oil and gas” policy outlined in the budget proposal yesterday was the less the process of an Obama policy process than it was the creation of green eye shade types at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) who’ve fought oil and natural gas for years.  Apparently President Reagan’s first budget did almost the same thing.  

For today, at least, that is going to be the extent of my criticism of President Obama.  As I’ve indicated, I believe the country needs change.  Of that I have no doubt.  But this much change so fast concerns me enormously.  It risks losing rationality in the process and without that in the mix, we will have nothing to show except enormously expanded American debt.  Let me now recommend some of the better and/or most informative pieces that I encountered this morning in my journey through today’s Washington Post and New York Times. 

I think the best sources of basic information this morning on the President’s budget proposal are the “analysis” pieces that can be found in both the Post and the Times.  The Post’s piece by Dan Balz is entitled Ambitious Blueprint a Big Risk The President is Willing to Take.  The Times’ “news analysis” piece is by John Harwood and is entitled Political Skills Put to the Test.  On the opinion front, representing left, right and center, I recommend three: Climate of Change by Paul Krugman; The Obamaist Manifesto by Charles Krauthammer; and the David Brooks column referenced and linked above.

As I indicated above, I am going to withhold criticism and give Obama a chance.  There will be plenty of time to oppose, if that is what is ultimately called for, as the conceptual frameworks become blueprints become law.  

It turns out it was a centrist Republican from central California (there’s a centrist theme here) who broke the budget deadlock in California this week.  He was able to break free from his party and ideology and do the right thing for the state.  The hero is 41-year-old State Senator Abel Maldonado.  The story can be found in Rare Centrist in State Senate Used Power to Shape Budget in today’s New York Times.  Mr. Maldonado, how about running as an independent for Congress next year?  The country needs more like you and especially in Washington DC.  To truly be free and make a difference, however, you’ll need to drop the party affiliation.  The only way to remove the insidious hold of party–to find true freedom to do what’s best for the country–is to cease to identify with either of the two political parties.   

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