As the debate over civility in politics continues in the wake of the shooting in Tucson, groups founded to push bipartisanship see an opening: Could this be a moment for the political middle?
Routinely ignored amid heated discussions over immigration and health care, moderate groups on the right and left are hoping their message of comity can finally take hold.
“It’s a real tragedy, but it’s also a real opportunity,” said Mark McKinnon, co-founder of No Labels, a nonpartisan group founded last month. The Republican consultant sees potential to change the hyper-partisan political environment, which he has described as “MoveOn.org on the Left and the Tea Party on the Right.”
Third Way, a group of moderate Democrats, is likewise seeking to spur the conversation on moderation. In a letter sent to congressional leaders Monday, Third Way’s leaders asked members to end the custom of sitting by political party during the president’s State of the Union address and to begin a new tradition of bipartisan retreats.
“That would certainly send a signal to the American people that service to country transcends partisan politics,” said Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way.
Their message tucks neatly into the political conversation on changing the tone of Washington that has unfolded since a lone gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed or wounded 19 others on Saturday. Giffords, a moderate Democrat, had been an honorary co-chair of Third Way.
Early signs of a change in tone have been noted: The House Republican leadership’s decision to delay the health-care debate, and lawmakers from both parties talking about the need to interact more with members on the opposite side of the aisle.
“They recognize that we need to have a civil dialogue,” McKinnon said. “They recognize we need a moment of calm.”
Part of the mission of both Third Way and No Labels is to create a more civil political dialogue.
But the conversation in recent days hardly guarantees a groundswell to the middle, said John Hill, a law professor at Indiana University and author of “The Political Centrist.” Tough political exchanges are endemic to the American political system, he said.
“When you go back to the type of rhetoric we saw in the late 18th century, people would draw John Adams with the face of a pig,” Hill said. “Our rhetoric — as heated as people think it is — is actually less heated than Thomas Jefferson would have welcomed.”
Moments of bipartisanship have weighed on the nation’s political leaders before. Most were short lived.
“We are hopeful but not starry-eyed about it,” said Matt Bennett, Third Way’s vice president of public affairs. “After 9/11 there was a lot of hope that would be the end to this nastiness in politics but that lasted about three weeks.”