May 17, 2012

The False Equivalency Police are dancing on Americans Elect’s grave, claiming the group’s failure to attract viable independent candidates proves the entire enterprise was misbegotten. What’s more, these critics add, Americans Elect’s flop shows that the whole thing was always a sideshow pushed by centrist pundits whose professional identity is wrapped up in the phony notion that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for our current predicament.

As a Clinton White House veteran who has touted the virtues of an independent candidacy to shake up the system, I’d like to clear up some confusion. I’m disappointed that Americans Elect has failed to produce a credible third option (late Thursday the group announced it was folding its tent for this year). And obviously I can’t speak for others who supported the idea. But in my case, at least, the criticism misses the point.

The reason I’ve wanted an independent candidacy has nothing to do with faulting Democrats and Republicans equally. It has to do with changing the boundaries of debate. That desire comes from holding the following five convictions:

1) The president and the Democrats’ agenda today is much better for the country than the Republicans’.

2) At the same time, the outer limits of Democratic ambition are not nearly equal to the challenges we face.

3) The renewal agenda we need partly involves reallocating public resources from outsized projected spending on programs serving seniors to big investments in the future — a reallocation Democrats won’t pursue, or won’t pursue on anything like the scale required, because they’re afraid of how elderly voters will react (and because they are reluctant to give up the political club that protecting current arrangements affords them).

4) The renewal agenda also requires tax reforms that most Democrats don’t support – such as permanently slashing corporate income and payroll tax rates even as we introduce some version of a national consumption tax and higher dirty-energy taxes, as well as a new higher marginal rate on personal incomes above, say, $5 million.

5) The pace of change in the global economy today is so fast — and the toll it is taking on middle- and lower-income Americans’ prospects so severe — that the normal incremental nature of politics assures that current threats to upward mobility and economic security will worsen.

I draw two conclusions from the premises above. First, vanquishing Republicans and electing Democrats won’t suffice to solve the country’s problems. It will lead instead to a “kinder, gentler” form of American decline.

Now, don’t get me wrong — given the choice, I’ll take kinder, gentler decline over meaner, grimmer decline any day. But who wants to settle for that?

My second conclusion is that it will take some force outside the current system to inject into the debate a bolder agenda to renew America.

I’m assuming the False Equivalency Police don’t welcome “kinder, gentler decline” as our future. If that’s the case, the vital question, on which the False Equivalency Police spends little time, is this: How do we expand the boundaries of debate so that they include policies more equal to our challenges? And how do we develop a constituency for bolder answers that (in my view, at least) tend to combine ideas that are to the “left” and to the “right” of the current debate?

Let me offer a few examples to make this concrete. If you think we need to slow the growth of Medicare and other health-care spending substantially (by bringing it more in line with other advanced nations’ per capita health spending), and use some of the savings to shrink tuition at public colleges to an affordable level (and not just save ten bucks a month on indebted students’ interest costs, which is what we’re debating today) — who’s your candidate?

If you think we should not guarantee the next generation of retirees a 30 percent real increase in initial Social Security benefits (as we do today) before we’ve first guaranteed that every child in America has access to high-quality pre-schools and great teachers (in part by recruiting top college students to careers in the classroom and paying them up to $150,000 a year), which party represents your voice?

If you think any leader serious about American renewal needs to make ending the Senate filibuster a centerpiece of his or her campaign, because we can’t govern a modern society when a minority representing as little as 15 percent of the country can stop anything from being done, where is your champion?

There’s more (such as ensuring access to health coverage outside the job setting and toughening rules for bank capital to prevent a replay of the financial crisis), but you get the idea. Even if Americans Elect had gotten traction, there was no certainty that the ideas I’m sketching would have been given voice. But the right kind of independent candidacy could have been a platform to start explaining and building a constituency for the new policies and trade-offs that an aging America in a global economy needs. It held the prospect of forcing both parties (and thus the press) to debate these critical issues and spend less time manipulating symbols and savaging each other in the quest to get to 50 percent plus one.

We can’t know what the impact of such a third voice would have been. But does anyone think the unfolding campaign will give us anything like such a discussion?

I’m sure those who hated the idea of an independent candidacy share my goals for American renewal. And I understand their fear of a Nader-style risk of throwing the election to “the bad guys.” Still, my question to these advocates and activists is this: Without some outside force, how do you see the boundaries of debate expanding?

Some progressives say the key is to bring pressure to bear within the Democratic party — a la the tea party model. I admire those who make this case – my Post colleagues Katrina vanden Heuvel, Harold Meyerson and E.J. Dionne Jr. are among the most eloquent and passionate. But, in my view, at least, this strategy and agenda will hit a wall — and ultimately be more rhetorical than real — to the extent that it doesn’t reallocate resources from projected outsized growth in programs serving seniors to future investments. I realize this point of view is controversial, but I also think that (even after tax hikes I support) it’s what the math of American renewal requires. It’s also consistent with our national commitment to assure dignity and security in old age. But it means challenging old assumptions about how Medicare and Social Security work. I don’t see Democrats taking these steps without some outside force changing their calculations. That’s why I say the agenda we need is at once to the left and the right of the current debate.

Others, like my talented Post colleague Ezra Klein, argue in a related vein that we need to do the hard work of grassroots organizing and persuasion around any bolder agenda, and focus on congressional candidates and reforms that could make the legislative process actually work. They say the notion that an independent presidential “speechmaker” on his or her own can be a solution is a fantasy. I agree. I saw an independent candidacy as the most promising opening shot to set such a broader constituency-building effort in motion, in ways that would change the behavior and policies of both major parties.

So far as I can tell, others in the False Equivalency Police have offered few ideas on how to broaden the debate to meet the country’s challenges, beyond vanquishing the GOP. That’s their prerogative as a political matter, of course, but it won’t (again, in my view) come close to rebuilding upward mobility and economic security in the United States. I’m not sure what Paul Krugman thinks a plausible path to a much more ambitious agenda is, but I’d be curious to hear it.

In the end, my enthusiasm for the potential of Americans Elect this year turns out to have been misplaced. But I still believe the debate needs to fundamentally change.

Which leaves me for now with this question for those who agree with me that both parties today are not equally to blame: What’s your theory of change that produces not just Democratic victories but also American renewal?

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.