New Gravity for the Political Center
My grandfather used to amaze us kids with a home movie he called "Gravity Remover." It showed balls rolling up steep hills, and spilled water flowing back into cups. It took us years to realize he was just running the normal film backward.
I've had that same pleasant suspension of disbelief the past few weeks watching the political scene. It's as if somebody has poured gravity remover all over Washington, dissolving the normal laws of political behavior. For a change, the extreme wings of the two parties aren't calling the shots; bad ideas pitched by one-issue zealots are falling flat; the news out of Iraq is upbeat; the Bush administration is appointing Rockefeller Republicans to top positions. What the heck is going on, Grandpa?
A week ago Senate conservatives tried to whip up a divisive dither about gay marriage. This wedge issue had worked brilliantly for the GOP in 2004, but this time the campaign fizzled after a few days. Perhaps credit is due to the vice president's gutsy lesbian daughter, Mary Cheney, who is on a tour promoting her book celebrating diversity, tolerance and her gay-rights-supporting dad.
Gravity remover has been dusted over the National Rifle Association, too. The fearsome NRA launched a nationwide campaign last month demanding that
every mayor and police chief in America sign a pledge that they won't disarm "law-abiding citizens" in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. The NRA
is also proposing federal legislation that would make it a crime for cops to disarm lawfully gun-toting citizens during
Even by NRA standards, this is a bad idea -- not just divisive but downright dangerous. Does the gun lobby really want to remake America in the image of Iraq? The proposal was apparently motivated by the lawlessness in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but if there aren't enough cops to patrol the streets, then hire more cops. When individual citizens, even "law-abiding" ones, decide to go it alone, the result is anarchy.
Given the gun lobby's usual success in muscling special-interest provisions into law, you might expect to see politicians rushing to sign the America-as-Baghdad pledge. But no. The NRA's proposal is getting the cool reception it deserves, and mayors actually seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Michael Bloomberg, the Republican mayor of New York, has organized a coalition to fight for tougher gun laws, and it now includes 50 other mayors. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the bill that would throw cops in jail if they tried to disarm NRA members after a terrorist attack is mercifully going nowhere.
Gaithersburg Police Chief Mary Ann Viverette, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, dismisses the pledge as "a thing to get attention for NRA issues." She explains: "It's really absurd. It asks us to sign a pledge to do something we do anyway -- uphold the Constitution."
David Brooks of the New York Times has argued that we're seeing a reanimation of the political center, and I think he's right. The middle is getting tired of the tyranny of the extremes. One sign is the launch this month of Unity08, a bipartisan group that plans to hold an online convention to nominate a split Democratic-Republican 2008 presidential ticket. Unity08's pitch to the big, unhappy middle is expressed succinctly in one of its slogans: "Depressed about the Democrats? Revolted by the Republicans? You're not alone."
One big factor that has locked in the status quo is political money, which gives inordinate power to special interests. But here, too, there seem to be sprinkles of gravity remover. Unity08's co-founders, Hamilton Jordan and Doug Bailey, say they are convinced they can fund an independent ticket from fed-up small donors. And there may be big money, too: Louis Bacon, who runs the giant hedge fund Moore Capital Management, has been discussing the creation of a "center for the center" that would help build a congressional third party. His argument is that if a third party could capture even a handful of House and Senate seats, it would hold the balance of power -- and would force the Democrats and Republicans to bargain toward the middle rather than the extremes.
Why do I think these traces of gravity remover are any more real than my grandfather Richard Weiser's home movie? Well, maybe the film of American politics has actually been running in reverse in recent years -- producing the illusion that you can govern America from the wings of each party. Maybe the movie is finally beginning to run forward again.