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A case for 'radical centrism'

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By Matt Miller
Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's striking that both liberals and conservatives are convinced nowadays of the imminent demise of the other side's governing philosophy. The left says the shocking toll of BP's recklessness and Wall Street's greed proves the folly of deregulation and unfettered markets. The right looks at Greece, Europe's welfare strains, and Britain's stunning new austerity budget and shouts with similar fervor that bloated government is on borrowed time.

The fascinating thing is that both groups are correct about the obsolescence of the other side's key premises, yet blind to the staleness of their own. What partisans on neither side seem to sense is that events are poised to consign many traditional priorities of both conservatives and liberals to the ash heap.

You'd never know this from the phony way public life is conducted. While independents are America's largest voting bloc, the left and right retain a stranglehold on the debate. Only the shrill prevail. On TV, talk radio or the campaign trail, it's almost impossible to hear the kind of common sense that takes us beyond the usual partisan tropes.

Think about it: How often do you hear the same pundit or politician say that (1) we need to reform Wall Street compensation so bankers can't get rich taking gambles whose losses get picked up by taxpayers ("liberal"), and that (2) Social Security's growth needs to be trimmed ("conservative")? Or that (1) we need to scale back gold-plated public employee pensions ("conservative") and (2) raise taxes in sensible ways to fix our fiscal woes ("liberal")?

These ideas aren't inconsistent or incoherent -- they're pragmatic responses to the challenges we face. But our entire system conspires to ban the expression of a practical synthesis of the best of "liberal," "conservative" and more eclectic views.

This void comes partly from ingrained intellectual habits in both parties and partly from a failure of imagination. Then media stenography does the rest, assuring that each side's views are faithfully reflected. Presto! You have the boundaries of debate.

Yet the deeper vacuum comes not from liberal or conservative ideology per se, but from the interest groups and campaign funders that help each side seek power.

The crisis in the way we think about our collective challenges, in other words, is inseparable from the economic stake many groups have in policies that are obstacles to addressing them.

Business, along with most wealthy individuals, for example, can be counted on to oppose any tax increase as "harmful to the economy." But we can't retire the baby boom, and double the number of people on Social Security and Medicare, without taxes rising as a share of gross domestic product. In trying to block public conversation about the need for smarter, higher taxes in the years ahead, our titans of commerce thus unwittingly chart a path toward an eventual debt or currency crisis that will hurt the economy far more than the modest tax increases the country requires. Yet to publicly acknowledge that taxes must rise as the boomers age is a sure route to excommunication from the GOP.

Democrats face their own paths to political suicide. In California, where I live, first-generation minorities are losing their shot at public colleges because endless budget crises have led the state to raise fees and tuitions through the roof, even as the schools lose state funding and slash enrollments. These poor students are supposed to be the people Democrats went into politics to help. Yet you can't fix the budget and restore opportunity for these kids without taking on the excesses of the public-sector unions, which provide the money and foot soldiers that get Democrats elected. Whose side are Democrats on?

The challenge is to build a new creed and a new coalition that can move us past the inability of left and right to tackle our real problems. President Obama campaigned in ways that sounded like this "radical centrism," but it remains to be seen whether he can lead us to this new center after the stumbles of his first 18 months. If you can't convince America that Mitt Romney's health plan isn't "socialist," it's not clear you're up to the renovation we need.

Whether it takes two years or 10, this new creed is coming, because the inexorable march of the global economy and our aging population have made old ideas and coalitions unsustainable. Whoever is savvy enough to build the new policy, messaging and constituency architecture for a genuine problem-solving path to 51 percent will win the future -- and deserves to.

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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