An agenda like this would never get anywhere because politically moderate ideas, though generally popular among voters, rarely get traction in Washington. This past week, President Obama dumped his down-the-middle deficit-reduction plan from this summer for one beloved by Democrats and reviled by Republicans. Centrist candidates, such as former Utah governor and current GOP presidential contender Jon Huntsman Jr., struggle to get above 1 percent in the polls. A Pew Research Center survey in the midst of the debt-ceiling debate found that a whopping 68 percent of Americans wanted lawmakers to compromise, yet the parties fought until the very end.
In our current system, partisans on the left and the right have great sway over the candidates on the ballots, as well as their positions. Moderates complain that they are usually forced to choose between a conservative ideologue and a liberal ideologue, both of whom won their primaries by making a bunch of promises that mean they can’t support bipartisan legislation.
Centrists tend to think that the path to bipartisan politics lies in civility, grass-roots organizing and candidates who magically emerge from the political center. But in today’s politics, that may not be enough.
Moderates may not like the tactics of the left and the right, but if they want to have an impact on our major political debates, they need to learn from the extremes and borrow their methods. Here’s how:
Make candidates sign a pledge
Grover Norquist, the head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, has for two decades not just asked candidates to oppose new taxes, he has demanded that they sign an anti-tax pledge. In nearly every Republican congressional primary, one of the candidates signs the pledge, leading his opponents to the same. One bizarre result: The Democratic president of the United States pleading with Republicans to back the renewal of a payroll tax cut by acknowledging the power of the Norquist pledge.
“I know that some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live,” Obama said in a speech this month to a joint session of Congress. “Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away.”
But there is no Norquist of the staunchly moderate, in part because no one has figured out how to be “staunchly moderate.”
One group, called No Labels, is trying to build a grass-roots movement to force the parties to the middle. This organization has support from Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, who says he’s so frustrated with partisanship that he won’t donate to either party and is encouraging Americans to no longer support the two-party system. Another group, Americans Elect, wants to put together a nonpartisan ticket.